MSPB: Glass Ceiling for Female Federal Employees “Fractured,” Not “Shattered”

A new report shows women have made significant progress over the past two decades in the federal workplace, but obstacles to equality remain.

A new U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) report is showing women have made significant progress over the past two decades in increasing their representation and utilization in the federal workplace. The outlook for women wanting to break through what the MSPB called the “fractured” glass ceiling, however, appears less promising.

On the up side, the MSBP report – the first such comprehensive report issued by the independent quasi-judicial agency since 1992 – shows that women now hold approximately 44 percent of federal professional and administrative occupations. That is a notable increase from 1991, when they held slightly more than 30 percent of positions in professional occupations and nearly 40 percent of positions in administrative occupations. Additionally, the pay gap between male and female federal employees has narrowed, with the median salary for women now being 93 percent of that for men, compared to 83 percent in 1991.

Now for the down side of the report, titled, Women in the Federal Government: Ambitions and Achievements. Some disheartening findings included:

  • In three-fourths of professional occupations, the salaries of women were lower than those of men, and the same trend played out in half of administrative occupations.
  • Although the MSPB noted these pay differences do not constitute as evidence of discrimination or inequitable human resources practices and policies, it said “pay factors cannot be fully explained by measurable factors such as occupation, education and experience.”
  • Women accounted for only 30 percent of the senior executive service.
  • Agency recruitment trends toward the external hiring of professional, administrative and professional positions do not favor women.
  • For example, between 2000 and 2008, women secured 61 percent of mid-level administrative positions when they were filled through internal hiring, but they secured only 32 percent of the same types of position that were filled through external hiring.
  • Despite making representation gains in the lawyer and physician professions, women remained scarce in the engineering and law enforcement occupations, where they accounted for 14 and 22 percent of workers in those professions, respectively.

Discrimination cannot be blamed for all of these depressing statistics. Factors such as education, experience, geographic mobility and interest in career advancement come into play. But as the report states, “progress toward full equality is not complete” and “sex-based discrimination and stereotypes have not completely disappeared.”

Although the MSPB made recommendations in the report to close this equality gap, it said, “future progress may come less easily than past progress.” How true. Progress will likely come slower because the discrimination or unfair policies and practices that various legislative and administrative reforms have not been able to eradicate over the past quarter century are deeply entrenched in the federal workplace.

This development means whatever remnants of discrimination women encounter in the federal workplace will have to be countered aggressively. No matter how frustrated women get with the system, they should not lose sight of the merit system principles established under the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 (5 U.S.C. §2301), such as “Recruitment should be from qualified individuals from appropriate sources …” and “Equal pay should be provided for work of equal value.”

Aggrieved female federal employees should contact a federal employment attorney to develop an aggressive legal strategy, which could include filing an administrative complaint or a discrimination complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In a so-called “mixed cases” where the discrimination is accompanied by a certain adverse employment action such as removal; an appeal could also be filed with the MSPB.

About the Author

Mathew B. Tully is a founding partner of Tully Rinckey PLLC. He concentrates his practice on representing federal government employees and military personnel. To schedule a meeting with one of the firm’s federal employment law attorneys call (202) 787-1900. The information in this column is not intended as legal advice.