Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Through the Glass Ceiling: Prospects for the Advancement of Women in the Federal Civil Service

Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Through the Glass Ceiling: Prospects for the Advancement of Women in the Federal Civil Service

Article excerpt

It is difficult to comprehend that a century ago, the public service was almost exclusively a male domain. When a member of the Civil Service Commission in 1894 asked the Secretary of the Interior whether a woman who had successfully passed the examination could be appointed to the high-paid position of pension examiner, the answer was a curt "No" (Aron, 1987).

Of course, overt discrimination in the federal government has been Illegal since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The progress made by women in terms of representation has been impressive: women now hold nearly half of the white-collar jobs in the executive branch. Meanwhile, the focus of those opposed to gender discrimination has shifted to jobs in the upper levels of government, since only about one in four supervisors and one in ten executives in the federal bureaucracy are women (Office of Personnel Management, 1991). Such statistics suggest that while employment may no longer be denied to women based on sex alone, some form of discrimination continues to prevent women from moving into supervisory and management positions. During the 1980s, the term "glass ceiling" was coined to describe the subtle barriers that block the advancement of women (and minorities). Two dimensions of the glass ceiling in the federal government have come to light: the nature of barriers that limit women's advancement, and women's own perception of their treatment in the workplace. The former must be understood before steps can be taken to achieve the full representation of women in senior level jobs. The latter must also be understood because even perceptions of disparate treatment can have an adverse impact on women and the organizations for which they work.

My analysis will be based on a unique data set compiled during 1991 and 1992 by the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB). Under its statutory authority to oversee merit systems and ensure that federal employees, among other things, are being promoted based on merit alone, MSPB undertook a study to determine whether a glass ceiling does exist in the federal government. The analysis was based on three sources of information: "hard data" collected on federal employees and maintained in a Central Personnel Data File (CPDF) by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM); focus groups of mid- and senior-level federal employees; and a written governmentwide survey of federal employees (Merit Systems Protection Board, 1992).

The MSPB study was sensitive to the complexities of the issues inherent in identifying barriers to the advancement of women. Any single statistic may be interpreted in more than one way. For example, is the poor representation of women in senior level jobs a result of fewer qualified women, less ambition on the part of women, or have women indeed faced discriminatory treatment? The creation of a large data set that included both quantitative and qualitative data about men's and women's career advancement in the federal civil service was designed to create as comprehensive a research base as possible to assess the glass ceiling at the federal level. The use of multiple sources of data had also proven successful for a Canadian task force that was charged by the Canadian Public Service Commission with identifying barriers to the advancement of women in that country's civil service (Beneath the Veneer, 1990).

Previous Research

Most of the previous academic research related to career advancement in the federal sector has focused on either "human capital" factors such as age, education, and length of service or on the differences in the attitudes and experiences of men and women. The former analyses have generally relied on data from the Central Personnel Data File (CPDF) on federal employees in order to determine the extent to which salary or promotion rate differences between women and men can be explained by differences in the human capital. Generally, these studies have not ruled out the existence of discrimination, because they did not find that the differences in human capital fully explained the variance in men's and women's advancement (Long, 1976; Borjas, 1978; Taylor, 1979; Lewis, 1986a, 1986b, 1986c, 1987). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.