Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

The Nexus between Gender and Perceived Career Opportunities: Evidence from the U.S. Federal Government

Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

The Nexus between Gender and Perceived Career Opportunities: Evidence from the U.S. Federal Government

Article excerpt

Introduction

Over the past few decades, gender equality has become a focal point for public policy. However, despite the long-standing commitments of the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and several more recent initiatives such as the Paycheck Fairness Act, gender equality in the workplace generally still falls short (Yamagata, Yeh, Stewman, & Dodge, 1997). And, although impressive gains were made by women, there are still significant inequalities that must be addressed. In this context, the focus often turns to the pay gap between men and women, which is widely discussed in both academic and practice-oriented fora. However, addressing inequalities such as the pay gap requires a better understanding of these gender differences and the sources from which they arise (Bolitzer & Godtland, 2012). As such, it will be difficult to eliminate gender inequality in the workplace as long as forces such as occupational segregation based on gender are still present. This kind of segregation often occurs in patterns, either horizontally or vertically. Horizontal segregation refers to the concentration of women or men in certain occupations or sectors. Men tend to hold occupations where the level of productivity and responsibilities is high, whereas women tend to be oriented toward occupations that are compatible with their family life (Meulders, Plasman, Rigo, & O'Dorchai, 2010). The idea that nurses and teachers are often pictured as women whereas doctors and lawyers are often assumed to be men are examples of how highly engrained horizontal segregation is in our society. The term vertical segregation describes men's domination of the highest status jobs. Women often experience (visible or invisible) barriers to entering the higher ranks of the organization, a phenomenon labeled as the "glass ceiling" (Powell & Butterfield, 1994). Even in female-dominated occupations, men have substantially better internal promotion chances compared with equally qualified women in such occupations (Hultin, 2003). Men are therefore said to be able to "ride a 'glass escalator' up internal career ladders to an extent and at a speed that their female coworkers can hardly enjoy" (Hultin, 2003, p. 3).

In this article, we zoom in on this last phenomenon, namely, vertical segregation, focusing on women's career opportunities. As such, the lower representation of women in top level positions is believed to be the result of a bias in promotional decisions. This may either be caused by direct, outright discrimination against women in organizations (intentional or not), or by indirect gender differences in job-relevant criteria for top management promotions. Either way, gender inequality may arise when considering career advancement, in which women are most likely to be at a disadvantage (Powell & Butterfield, 1994). Even within the U.S. federal government, which is considered as a leader in equal-opportunity employment, male and female workers are still found to hold different occupations (Bolitzer & Godtland, 2012).

Nevertheless, several studies have found that vertical segregation is no longer as pervasive as was once the case (Tomaskovic-Devey, 1993). Admittedly, government agencies have seen a steady rise of women in upper management positions (Bowling, Christine, Jennifer, & Wright, 2006; Dreher, 2003; Powell & Butterfield, 1994). Women comprised 30% of the Senior Executive Service in 2010 compared with only 12.3% in 1992 (Sabharwal, 2013). Although women occupy an ever-increasing percentage of middle and upper management positions in all workforce settings, research over the past several decades has observed the continued existence of structural and organizational barriers that render the advancement of female managers more difficult compared with their male counterparts (Guy & Newman, 2004; Hsieh & Winslow, 2006; Miller, Kerr, & Reid, 1999; Reid, Miller, & Kerr, 2004; Riccucci, 2009; Sneed, 2007; Yamagata et al. …

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