Minority Representation in Senior Positions in U.S. Federal Agencies: A Paradox of Underrepresentation

By Starks, Glenn L. | Public Personnel Management, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Minority Representation in Senior Positions in U.S. Federal Agencies: A Paradox of Underrepresentation


Starks, Glenn L., Public Personnel Management


US federal government agency workforces are typically believed to epitomize equal opportunity and embrace merit principles. The federal government has historically spearheaded policies and programs to mandate affirmative action, eradicate glass ceilings, and institute initiatives to recognize the achievements of and provide equal employment opportunities to all members of minority groups. Some agencies even integrate merit principles into their strategic missions and cultural climates. Yet, an analysis of federal agency employment data reveals that minorities still constitute a small percentage of higher level government employees in most agencies. While minorities make up a sizable percentage of lower level government employees, their percentages decline progressively up through the senior levels. In fact, the racial composition of some agencies' workforces mirrors that of the nation's population only at the lowest pay levels, and race is the leading category for equal employment opportunity charges filed by aggrieved federal employees. Agencies should, thus, examine minority employment at all pay levels, even if their aggregate percentages are comparable to the general population.

The lack of minority representation at senior levels raises the additional concern that federal agencies may not always address the needs of all U.S. citizens. Since top-level officials establish agencies' missions, set major policies, and determine agencies' goals, the composites of senior leaders in agencies that do not mirror the general population may not well represent all groups in the populace. According to Dolan, (1) in a representative democracy, a "bureaucracy composed of individuals who share the values and attitudes of the public at large will produce public policy that closely reflects the interests and desires of the public. Since the public is diverse in terms of race, religion, gender and social class, a demographically diverse bureaucracy will ideally include a variety of viewpoints and perspectives and produce policy that is consistent with public sentiments."

Accepting this definition, it follows that senior leaders in the bureaucracy of a representative democracy should include individuals who reflect the diversity of their constituents and their subordinates. Greene, Seldom and Brewer (2) stated this principle by writing, "The potential for individuals to be effective in an organization seems obviously to depend not just on their presence, but also on the rank of their positions in the bureaucratic hierarchy." Minority representation at higher pay levels in federal agencies is necessary to ensure that the needs and interests of all employees are considered and that multiple viewpoints are integrated when policies, regulations, and strategic directions are set.

Many executive and legal attempts have been made to ensure minorities are adequately represented in federal employment. For example, Executive Order 11478, originally signed on August 8, 1969, by President Richard Nixon, states, "It is the policy of the government of the United States to provide equal opportunity in federal employment for all persons, to prohibit discrimination in employment because of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, handicap, or age, and to promote the full realization of equal employment opportunity through a continuing affirmative program in each executive department and agency. This policy of equal opportunity applies to and must be an integral part of every aspect of personnel policy and practice in the employment, development, advancement, and treatment of civilian employees of the federal government." Later, the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 established a policy standard of a "federal workforce reflective of the nation's diversity."

President Bill Clinton took the most dramatic steps to ensure minorities were represented at the highest levels of government. He called for a government that "looks like America" and named more women and minorities to his Cabinet than any previous president. …

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