Report: Overt bias against women has faded in government, but issues of pay and promotion remain

May 25, 2011

Women working in the federal government are no longer victims of overt discrimination but are still paid less than men in similar jobs and are less likely to become supervisors, a new report says.

“The vision of a workforce in which women are fully represented and utilized has not been wholly achieved,” concluded the report, released this week by the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board.

The independent agency says a lot has changed for women in federal service since it last looked at the issue in 1992. That report, “A Question of Equity: Women and the Glass Ceiling in the Federal Government,” was a mirror onto many of the issues women faced 19 years ago. They now make up almost a third of the Senior Executive Service, the government’s elite cadre of managers, up from 11 percent in 1990. And they accounted for 44 percent of the government’s professional and administrative jobs in 2009, up from 12 percent and 20 percent, respectively, in 1976.

The median salary for women in professional and administrative jobs has climbed to 93 percent of that of men in 2009, up from 83 percent in 1991. But the persistent wage gap concerned the merit board.

“Within a given occupation, women often have lower salaries than men,” the report says, “and those salary differences cannot be fully explained by differences in measurable factors such as experience and education.”

Some of the merit board’s conclusions are echoed in a separate report issued Wednesday by the Partnership for Public Service, showing gender differences in men’s and women’s satisfaction with their work in government.

That report, prepared with the consulting firm Deloitte, found that women are less likely than men to think they have the power to make and be consulted on decisions at work. Women also are less likely to feel comfortable blowing the whistle on wrongdoing and more skeptical than men that arbitrary actions, favoritism and political coercion are not tolerated in the workplace.

The widest gaps between women and men were felt at the Veterans Affairs Department, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The Partnership for Public Service also found that men and women who are not managers reported similar satisfaction with their work-life balance. But among managers, women’s satisfaction rates fell 2.4 percentage points behind those of male managers. (The Washington Post has a content-sharing relationship with the Partnership for Public Service.)

Fewer women reported to the merit systems board that they are subjected to overt stereotypes and discrimination, but are rewarded and hired instead on the basis of merit. More women hold professional positions than ever and are particularly well represented, for example, as physicians and lawyers. Gaps in education and experience with men have narrowed.

But women still lag in the top ranks of the federal government and are dogged by lower pay than men and poor chances for advancement in some professions, such as law enforcement, engineering and information technology, the merit systems board found.

This under-representation complicates recruitment and creates “glass walls” that hinder women from advancing within their agencies or between agencies, even if they have the same education level, experience and performance as men.

When an agency hires or recruits from outside for upper-level positions, that job is often out of reach for women, the study found.

The merit systems board based its conclusions on interviews with federal managers and employees, discussion groups with employees, a survey of the workforce called the Career Advancement Survey and a review of current literature on workforce fairness and gender differences.

Even in the absence of overt sex-based discrimination, many employees continue to believe that women are subjected to unfounded assumptions about their abilities or dedication to their work.

But the report also found that many issues that are critical to the fair treatment and advancement of women are universal. For example, men and women share equal and widespread concerns about the role of favoritism in personnel decisions. They share similar concerns about how supervisors are selected, how to balance demanding jobs with life and family responsibilities and how to advance professionally.

To counter these imbalances, the merit system board counsels federal agencies to pursue more flexible work schedules that can attract women and keep them; focus on “ability and results” rather than “surface characteristics and impressions” when evaluating an employee’s performance and potential; and improve recruiting and development of supervisors.

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