50 Years of Federal Times

Women in government: A slow but steady progression up

In 1965, when Federal Times was launched, most women working in the federal government were secretaries, and not of the presidential-cabinet variety. Think "Mad Men," D.C.-style.

But we've come a long way. And then some.

Now there's a much higher percentage of women in top management positions in the federal government than there is in the general U.S. workforce, according to a 2014 Office of Personnel Management report. Thirty-four percent of senior executive service positions at federal agencies are currently held by women, said the report. By contrast, in the private sector, women occupy just 14.6 percent of executive jobs, according to a 2014 report from the Center for American Progress.

And women's numbers are greater across other upper echelons of the federal government, as well. They held approximately 44 percent of federal government positions in both professional and administrative occupations, according to a 2011 report from the Merit Systems Protection Board. That's close to double the number in 1976, when the MSPB began reporting on the role of women in the federal government. And now nearly five years later, the percentage likely swelled further.

Said Linda Springer, former director of the OPM as well as head of the Office of Federal Financial Management at the Office of Management and Budget, a big turning point came in 1977 when Jimmy Carter became president.

"Before that, women having any role in presidential cabinets were exceptions," she said. "Johnson in 1965 had no women in his cabinet, followed by Nixon, with no women. Ford had Carla Hills as leader of HUD [Housing and Urban Development], but when Carter came in, he had women in three cabinet positions, and from that point, you started to see things change for women in government."

Said Karen Evans, former OMB administrator for e-government and IT, another pivotal development that set the stage for equity for women employed by the federal government came with the implementation of merit-based pay programs. Merit-based pay was introduced by the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act. Said Evans, now a partner at KE&T Partners and national director of the U.S. Cyber Challenge, merit-based pay created a structure that protected job status and promotion opportunities for all employees – even when they needed to be off for extended periods to, say, have a baby or tend to a sick family member.

"There is a lot of flexibility for those employed by the government," Evans said. "In the private sector, could you be off for six months with a pregnancy and come back at the same level and be considered right away for promotions? No. But in the federal government, you can. There is a solid career ladder set up for all, created to deal with perceived barriers and bias, and this has been a game changer for women."

Beth McGrath – former deputy chief management officer at the Department of Defense and current director of federal strategy and operations at Deloitte Consulting -- said that passage of the 1977 Family Friendly Leave Act, combined with the evolution of parenting norms to include a more active role for men, have changed the face of the workplace for women in government and elsewhere.

"There has been a paradigm shift around family as a multi-person responsibility, and that has enabled more opportunity for women," McGrath said. "Back in the early days, women had the role of the mom, and if they were working, it had to be around their kids' schedules, so they couldn't take on more responsibility and leadership in their jobs. But even in my time in government – 1988 to 2013 – I saw a real shift, with both parents parenting, allowing women to attain and sustain various levels of opportunity and jobs in government, and to stay there."

50 years of change

To honor Federal Times' 50 year heritage, we showcase through compelling reporting and film the historic moments that most transformed government.

Equity in pay has come a long way, too – though women still fall below their male counterparts. According to OPM's 2015 report, women in white collar federal jobs still earn 87 cents for every dollar men make. But true parity is not far off, it said.

McGrath agrees.

“I made my way all the way up through the ranks, starting as a GS-7 and eventually becoming a political appointee,” she said. “For that to happen for me during those years, I would say that anything is possible going forward for women in government.”

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