T hirty-five years ago, a group of women sitting around a kitchen table in a Washington home decided to create Federally Employed Women. "Sex" had just been added to the types of discrimination prohibited in the federal workplace.
FEW, as the group is called, will celebrate its 35th anniversary this evening with a gala reception. Tomorrow, the group looks to the future with a breakfast at the Capitol focused on legislative issues.
The founders envisioned FEW as a nonpartisan group that would work toward ending sexual discrimination inside the government and would complement official women's programs sponsored by federal agencies. As a private advocacy group, FEW could lobby on Capitol Hill and perform advocacy work that would be off-limits for a federal agency.
Many of the founding members are still involved in the organization, including Allie Latimer, the group's first president, who will offer the welcoming remarks to about 200 guests tonight.
Since its founding, FEW has grown to more than 100 chapters across the country and overseas. Membership is open to women and men willing to work toward ending discrimination against women in government. The group's directors come from 21 states.
In the past three decades, "women have made great strides in the federal workplace," said Patricia Wolfe, FEW's president. "Unfortunately, the 'glass ceiling' is still there in many career fields."
Wolfe said it remains difficult for women to break out of administrative support jobs. "Once you are a secretary or administrative clerk, many managers find it difficult to see you in the role of a supervisor, even when you have the education," she said.
Women represent 44 percent of the federal workforce, compared with 46.6 percent of the private-sector workforce, data collected by the Office of Personnel Management show. Women represent 34.8 percent of all federal employees in professional occupations and 46.9 percent of employees in administrative jobs.
On average, women in the government are paid less than men, OPM data show. For example, women who have a bachelor's or graduate degree and less than 14 years of experience are paid an average of $5,500 less annually than men with similar qualifications. Women with 15 years or more of federal service are paid about $8,900 less than men who have served that long.
The last major study looking at the federal glass ceiling -- that barrier to women's careers that is born of stereotypes and unfounded assumptions -- was published in 1992 by the Merit Systems Protection Board. The study showed that women were less likely to win promotions in their first five years of federal employment than men with the same qualifications and background. That effectively destroyed their chances of advancing to top federal jobs.
In addition to helping women overcome bias, FEW has taken up several issues that especially affect women and minorities. They include outsourcing of federal work, favoritism in pay and promotions, and Social Security provisions that reduce retirement income for federal workers.
"Hardly a week goes by without someone contacting FEW about a discrimination issue," Wolfe said.
This evening's gala reception will feature Kay Coles James, the OPM director, as the keynote speaker. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) will address the group tomorrow.
Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.) has asked congressional appropriators to drop a $5 million appropriation for a proposed reorganization of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission because the proposal "has not been subject to traditional congressional scrutiny."
Sarbanes said EEOC employees have told him that a proposal to restructure and consolidate some field offices "could severely impact the important work done by this crucial agency."
An agency spokeswoman said task forces have been formed to study recommendations made by the National Academy of Public Administration. No decisions have been made on whether to close field offices, she said. If funding is available, the agency hopes to open a call center Oct. 1, she said.
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