Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

The Glass Ceiling in the USDA Forest Service: Willing to Conform, Demanding Change

Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

The Glass Ceiling in the USDA Forest Service: Willing to Conform, Demanding Change

Article excerpt

Despite the rapid growth in the employment of women in the U.S. workforce, women continue to encounter barriers in general management and executive positions. These barriers have been described as a "glass ceiling" for women (Morrison et al., 1987). The ceiling is a cap beyond which women find it difficult to break into higher level positions because of sociological restrictions which have the effect of limiting their opportunities for career development. The U.S. Merit System Protection Board (MSPB) (1992) conducted a survey of federal employees as to whether these barriers to career advancement also restrict the government workforce. The conclusion of the MSPB study was that a glass ceiling truly exists in the federal government.

Concurrent with the MSPB study, the authors conducted a survey of the USDA Forest Service to see if these barriers exist in this traditionally male-dominated agency. They then compared the results of the MSPB study with their research to see whether career paths for women in the Forest Service differed significantly from the opportunities of female employees throughout the federal government.


Although the number of women in the workplace has risen significantly over the past few decades, women are a distinct minority at the executive level of most corporations and public agencies. For years women have struggled to gain acceptance in the workplace but, as women break through one set of employment barriers, they encounter new ones. Women have made important inroads in the number of women entering the workforce but the kinds of jobs held by women have not changed dramatically. The four occupational groups dominated by women in 1920 were factory workers, domestic service, secretarial/clerical and teaching. By 1983 only the order has changed and this because fewer people employed maids (Sealander, 1983).

In general, executive level positions continue to elude women. Women remain "virtually invisible" at the top of most corporations (Freeman, 1990). This phenomenon has been termed a "glass ceiling" for women seeking to work their way up the corporate ladder (Morrison et al., 1987).

One of the earliest analyses of the barriers to female entry into executive level positions in government was conducted by Stewart (1976). This study considered three explanations for the glass ceiling: first, a political power struggle between males and females; second, biological differences with work performance implications; and third, sociological biases inherent in most human cultures. Stewart questioned the political explanations by contradicting the proposition, "If, in fact, there were a conscious male conspiracy, bent on keeping women in low status jobs, then one would expect to find little variation in opportunity for distaff advancement across agencies (Ibid., 358). Evidence of the percent of women in executive level positions shows wide variation between agencies of the federal government, therefore Stewart dismissed the political explanation.

The biological explanation is proposed as "not simply that certain mental or behavior traits may be sex linked and hence physiologically determined, but that presence of some traits and absence of others act directly on the fitness of women for high-level decision-making positions (Ibid., 359). Stewart dismissed the biological argument on two grounds. First, the fact remains that, although there are few women in executive or decision-making positions, they do exist and perform without any regard to any biological factor. Second, if there were biological factors prohibiting women from being competent decision-makers, they would follow a predictable pattern of participation in the labor force. Women would enter employment "when first out of school, withdrawing from the labor force for marriage and motherhood, and returning to paid work in later years when children are in school or on their own" (Stewart, 1976:359). …

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