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Hiring rate stalls for women in top federal government jobs

Joe Davidson | The Washington Post via YellowBrix

April 07, 2010

Progress in promoting women to the top levels of the federal civil service has flowed like the mighty Mississippi River in the springtime.


Lately, it’s been more like a leaky faucet in Uncle Sam’s kitchen.

While men and women are close to being equally represented in the lower grades of the federal workforce, “at the higher levels women are woefully falling short of their male counterparts,” says a new report by the group Federally Employed Women, appropriately referred to as FEW.

Between 1992 and 2003, women were breaking through the glass ceiling at a pretty good clip, more than doubling their participation in the government’s Senior Executive Service from 12.3 percent to 26.2 percent, according to numbers FEW took from Office of Personnel Management reports.

But then things slowed like a river before a dam.

Between 2006 and 2009, the proportion of women in SES barley moved, from 28.7 percent to 29.9 percent. “Increasing the ranks of women in the SES less than one percentage point every two years is absolutely unacceptable,” FEW says with an understandable sense of indignation.

Though FEW is upset with the federal government, it has good things to say about the White House and the Office of Personnel Management under President Obama.

The White House Council on Women and Girls and OPM have been “very, very receptive,” said Janet Kopenhaver, FEW’s Washington representative.

Christine M. Griffin, OPM’s deputy director, said her office and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, her former agency, are working to “ensure that federal agencies remove all remaining barriers to women’s advancement in SES and senior pay levels.”

But having allies in the White House and at OPM doesn’t mean the problems have disappeared. FEW provides some solutions. At the top of the list is training.

By far, FEW says, its “members cite the lack of training and cross-training as a major impediment to women moving into the top levels of the federal government.” FEW has sponsored its own national training program, even as it has watched the government’s training budget fall.

“Training dollars have shrunk to truly unbelievably low levels over the last couple of years,” according to the report. “When funding is tight, training is one of the first things cut, and yet it critically impacts the quality of our federal workforce.”

Everyone knows mentoring is a key element in helping individuals advance, yet the lack of women in the upper ranks presents a Catch-22 predicament. “Obviously because there are far fewer female SES and high ranking employees in the federal government, our mentor pool is much smaller than that of men,” FEW said.

FEW’s solution: Develop a formal mentoring program for women. The organization says establishing and participating in a mentoring program should be part of the performance requirements for both supervisors and staff.

What FEW advocates is basic good management.

There’s one crucial factor that FEW mentions briefly, but without the elaboration it deserves: “Managers and supervisors need to be held accountable for diversity in their agencies.”

This is true for the hiring and advancement of women, African Americans, Latinos, the disabled and other groups that are underrepresented at the boss level in government, newspapers and throughout American society. Unless managers are held responsible for creating a thoroughly diverse workplace, the kind of tepid movement that women have recently experienced with the SES will be the norm.

There is a government program, the Federal Women’s Program, that’s designed to encourage the hiring and advancement of women in the federal government, but it’s just about useless, according to FEW.

FEW said it “is very concerned that since FWP’s inception . . . the effectiveness of FWPs has gradually eroded to the point of almost non-existence where many agencies do not even comply with reporting requirements with respect to these programs.”

Under the program, federal agencies appoint FWP managers, who work with the agencies to bolster the number and status of women. But the program apparently is so ineffective that an OPM document with instructions to managers, which required them to develop plans of action and submit progress reports, cannot be found.

“I searched for the instructional language and I couldn’t find it,” Kopenhaver said.

FEW wants the administration to issue new orders that tell agencies they must outline the requirements of the women’s programs and the support they are to receive, specify the responsibilities of the programs’ managers and make public agency progress reports and their plans of action.

Sounds like a plan to me.

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