Scott Graham, Ph.D.
Scott Williams, Ph.D.
GRAHAM, WILLIAMS, SPRING, 2003
One optimistic view would suggest that this snapshot of the
1990s documents a stage in womens inexorable journey toward
gender equity at work. But those with less rosy perspectives can
find ample room for concern.
this picture: You are on the ground floor of a building, one of
those modern palaces where balconied floors surround a central atrium
reaching all the way to the roof. As you gaze upward, you can see
fifteen floors of the building, all containing the expected level
of activity: people are walking, alone and in groups, glass elevators
are gliding up and down, a few people lean on the balcony railings,
admiring the beauty of the architecture.
As you continue
to watch the people above, you begin to discern a pattern. On the
second and third floors, there is a mix of people, young and old,
black and white, male and female. But as your focus moves higher,
that all begins to change. By the seventh and eighth floors, the
people are considerably more homogeneous -- mostly white, and mostly
male. On the uppermost floors, minorities and women have pretty
much vanished, and even those riding the glass elevators to the
rarified air of the top floors are nearly all white, and nearly
How you feel about
this little vignette depends a great deal upon your own gender.
As a male, this scene might not seem surprising to you at all: it
is in fact the norm in many places, the way things have always been.
But if you are a woman, this same scene can mean something very
different. True, it may be the way things have always been, but
its not the way things need to be in the future.
What is this barrier, this invisible mechanism that seems to make
the upper floors an all-male preserve? This article will look at
the nature of gender discrimination in general, and will focus on
the status of federally-employed women in education career fields.
A Barrier Invisible
newly-introduced term resonates in such a way that it quickly becomes
part of everyday language. The words of two Wall Street Journal
reporters, Carol Hymowitz and Timothy D. Schellhardt, had such an
impact in a 1986 article:
few women who rose steadily through the ranks eventually crashed
into an invisible barrier. The executive suite seemed within their
grasp, but they just couldnt break through the glass ceiling.
Thus the term glass
ceiling came to enter the language, and within five years it
had entered the law as well. The Civil Rights Act of 1991 focused
on gender discrimination, establishing the U.S. Federal Glass Ceiling
Commission (FGCC). The charter of the FGCC was to identify the causes
of gender discrimination, and to make recommendations to eliminate
it. From 1991 to 1995, the FGCC examined employment conditions in
both private and public sectors, concluding that gender inequity existed
in both spheres. The federal government was certainly not immune.
For example, in 1990, the year prior to the establishment of the Commission,
only 6.2% of federally employed women were at or above the level of
middle management (GS-13 and above). Yet men were more than four times
more likely to reach those upper levels: nearly 28% of federally-employed
males were in that GS-13 and above category (FGCC, 1995, p. 35).
This requires some
explanation. Most of the 1.7 million civilian federal white collar
employees are paid based on what is known as the General Schedule
(GS). This is made up of fifteen grade levels, from the lowest (GS-1)
to the highest (GS-15). Within each grade are ten steps,
incremental pay increases based largely (though not completely)
on longevity (5USC, § 5332). Above GS-15, special pay plans
exist for the highest levels of leadership, e.g., the Senior Executive
Service, Senior Diplomatic Service. As a rough comparison, a GS-12
is comparable to an Army or Air Force captain, and a GS-15 is equivalent
to a colonel. The highest levels of civilian leadership (above GS-15)
can be thought of as equivalent to generals and admirals in the
In 1991, the same
year the FGCC was chartered, the average GS grade for federally-employed
women was 7.50, and the median grade was GS-7. For men, the average
was 10.38, and their median grade was GS-11. This disparity was
reflected in average salary: in 1991, the average federally-employed
woman earned $28,184, while the average for men was $40,926 (U.S.
Department of Commerce [USDC], 1991, p. 9).
The Federal Glass
Ceiling Commission completed its work with the release of a report
in 1995. That report, entitled, A Solid Investment: Making
Full Use of the Nation's Human Capital, called on both the
private sector and government to take action to reduce and ultimately
eliminate the effects of the glass ceiling. The report urged the
federal government to focus on two areas: first was the gathering
and dissemination of national statistics to identify problem areas
and to track progress. Equally important, the FGCC urged government
at all levels to lead by example, tearing down its own
barriers to the career success of minorities and women (FGCC, 1995,
Fields Within the Federal Government
There are 446 white
collar career fields within the federal government. Of those, eleven
fall within what the government calls the education group,
including positions which involve administering, managing,
supervising, performing, or supporting education or training . .
. (U.S. Office of Personnel Management [OPM], Handbook, 1999,
pp. 76-77). In 1991, the government had 19,902 employees classed
as General Schedule and related employees in the education
group, also referred to as GS-1700 (USDC, 1991, p. 76). Of those,
9,230 (46.4%) were women. The Department of Defense (DoD) was by
far the biggest user of education group employees: More than 77%
of the total education work force belonged to DoD. The Department
of the Interior was the second most significant employer, with about
11%. All other federal agencies lagged far behind in numbers of
educators employed (USDC, 1991, pp. 126-127).
educational specialists in 1991 were spread among 11 career series.
Most were classified as professionals, the highest category
of federal white collar workers. These people teach or manage teachers
in various settings, including vocational training, vocational rehabilitation,
public health education, and education research. Typical lower-echelon
education positions include latch key specialists, child
care providers, education technicians, and entry-level teachers
and guidance counselors. At more senior levels, education-related
jobs typically require higher levels of training, and tend to be
supervisory in nature. For example, child care directors, education
services officers, curriculum specialists, and training administrators
would fall into this category.
Review of Literature
The existence of
a glass ceiling exists in education settings outside the federal
government is well established. Inman (1998) noted that the glass
ceiling hinders women trying to move beyond mid-level faculty and
administrative positions. In comparison with male faculty, the glass
ceiling further contributes to both the relative career brevity
and lower productivity of female faculty members (Bain, 2000; Chaffings,
1995). Data shows that women in academia suffer disparities with
respect to men by almost every indicator of professional status,
including rank, salary, tenure, job satisfaction, and working conditions
(Glazer-Raymo, 1999). Womens wages and advancement are also
affected by their tendency to choose less lucrative occupations,
assume a greater share of domestic responsibilities, and exit the
workforce for family reasons at higher rates than men (Hersch &
Stratton, 2002; Kim & Polacheck, 1994; Palomba & Palomba,
on women educators beneath the glass ceiling are significant. For
example, while 42% of new entrants to medical school are women,
only 5% of department heads and only 3% of medical school deans
are female. Men in educational settings receive advantages in terms
of office space, grant support, protected time for research and
other career-enhancing benefits, compared to their female peers
(Tesch, Wood, Helwig, & Nattinger, 1995). Tesch et al. attributed
these disparities to bias, poor negotiation ability, and underdeveloped
networking skills on the part of women. Coleman (1998) confirmed
these ideas, identifying the most significant barriers to women
in education, in order of importance: Exclusion from good
ol boys networks; employers negative attitude
toward women; and lack of professional networking.
While these studies
have targeted non-federally employed educators, there is reason
to believe that similar conditions exist in the federal workforce.
While the glass ceiling may be itself invisible, its effects are
not. If such a barrier exists within the federal government, one
would expect to find women disproportionately clustered on lower
rungs of the career ladder, with incomes correspondingly lower than
those of their male counterparts. However, if the progress urged
by the Civil Rights Act of 1991 and the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission
has in fact become a reality, we would expect to see progress through
the decade of the 1990s, in terms of both pay and career success.
The Federal Education Field in 1991
To best evaluate
the extent of progress made in cracking the glass ceiling, we can
start by examining the state of the education career fields in the
early 1990s. Of the governments 1.7 million white-collar employees
in 1991, about 841,000 (or 49.1%) were women. In the field of education,
we have seen that the overall proportion of women was similar. In
1991, 46.4% of General Schedule-and-related education employees
were women (USDC, 1991, pp. 2, 76).
measure of gender equity is salary. In 1991, male federal employees
in education made substantially more, in the aggregate, thandid
their female counterparts. The average salary for federally-employed
men in education was $38,000 in 1991; for women, $29,800. Thus,
the average woman educator earned only about 78.4% of the salary
earned by the average male in the field (USDC, 1991, p. 38).
Since pay scales
in government do not vary based on gender, one must look elsewhere
for the causes of this substantial disparity. Some likely causes
of this earning gap are rank and seniority. With such a significant
gender-based difference in earnings, one would expect to find that
the education field was, in 1991, characterized by disproportionate
numbers of men at its upper levels, with women overrepresented in
the lower ranks. Note in Figure 1
that compared to their overall representation of 46.4% in the General
Schedule education workforce, women were overrepresented at or below
the level of GS-12, and severely underrepresented above that level:
at and above the level of GS-13, men outnumbered women more than
of women was even more stark at the highest pay levels. At the highest
General Schedule level, GS-15, women made up only 23% of the workforce
in 1991. At even more senior pay grades, those senior executives
compensated above the levels of the General Schedule, women held
a mere 14 of 210 positions, only about 6.7% (USDC, 1991, p. 77).
Career Fields in 1999
Recall for a moment
the open atrium example at the start of this article.
All of the figures discussed above suggest that female educators
within the federal government faced a strong glass ceiling effect
in 1991. In a career field almost equally populated between men
and women, salaries showed substantial inequity, and the highest-ranking
levels of the field were very much a male preserve, with women filling
less than 7% of those positions.
That same year,
however, marked the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the establishment
of the FGCC. Did the status of women educators improve in the years
following 1991? Has pay equity been achieved, or at least improved?
Are women better represented at the upper levels of the education
field? For these answers, one can turn to the most recent federal
statistics, covering the workforce at the start of the 2000 fiscal
Women in Federal
Education Careers 2000
If the above data
shows an education career field with a strong glass ceiling at the
start of the 1990s, how had the picture changed by the end of the
To examine this,
it is necessary to evaluate the most recent data, covering the federal
workforce at of the start of Fiscal Year 2000. The record demonstrates
substantial improvement in the status of women educators over the
years between 1991 and 2000.
period, the size of the GS-and-related education workforce remained
relatively stable, at about 19,000 employees. But the proportion
of women in the field climbed dramatically, rising from 46.4% to
57% of the workforce in the year 2000: of the 19,016 people in the
field, almost 11,000 were female (OPM, Occupations, 1999, p. 67).
The news on the
compensation front, though, is not so positive. We saw that in 1991,
female educators earned, in the aggregate, only about 78.4% of their
male counterparts salaries. This number barely changed over
the decade of the 1990s, so that by the year 2000, women were earning
only 79.8% of the mens pay (OPM, Occupations, 1999, p. 42).
Of the dozens of career fields examined by this articles authors
to date, no other field has seen such an insignificant improvement.
For a more typical example, female federal auditors earned about
80% of the average male salary in 1991, and that climbed to 87%
by 2000 (Baker & Lightle, 2001, p. 22).
salary disparity suggests a persistently strong glass ceiling, and
other data bear that out. Recall that in 1991 women made up 48.5%
of the lower echelons of education at and below the rank of GS-12;
by 2000, that number had climbed to 58.4% (OPM, Occupations, 1999,
p. 67). So many women clustering at the lower levels of the career
field has the effect of pulling down average female salaries, even
if women make progress in moving into the upper ranks of the career
field. (see Figure 2).
And such progress
did occur in the 1990s. Figure
2 shows that whereas women occupied only 28.7% of positions
at and above GS-13 in 1991, by 2000 that percentage had risen to
At the highest
General Schedule level, GS-15, the proportion of women nearly doubled
from 1991 to 2000: In 1991, just 23% of GS-15s in education were
female. By 2000, women educators made up more than 44% of all GS-15s.
For the very highest pay grades, those senior pay plans above the
General Schedule, the proportion of women increased there as well
(see Figure 3), from 6.7% in 1991
to 9.3% in 2000 (OPM, Occupations, 1999, p. 67).
Analysis and Potential
So the data makes
clear that the picture for federally employed women in education
improved considerably during the 1990s. Women grew from a minority
of the federal education workforce to being a substantial majority
by the year 2000. Although still lagging behind their male counterparts
in representation at upper levels of management, the proportion
of women at more senior levels did in fact increase markedly.
Less clear are
the causes of this improvement. We have seen that the Civil Rights
Act of 1991 and the establishment of the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission
in that same year called for actions to improve the status of women
in the workforce. But there were a variety of other socio-cultural
influences at work in the 1990s that also likely had an effect.
The decade of the
1990s saw a host of changes in the cultural landscape of America,
and those changes were reflected in the federal workforce. Some
might find it ironic that President Clinton, so often publicly castigated
for his behavior toward women, led an administration which provided
unprecedented opportunities for women, especially at senior levels.
Attorney General Janet Reno and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright
became the first-ever female appointees to those positions, while
other women served as heads of the Department of Health and Human
Services, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Air Force.
Women were so well represented in the Clinton Administration that
one author noted that women comprised half the attendees at senior
staff meetings in the White House (Kirschten, 2000).
Education is another
likely cause of womens progress. Women outperform men in terms
of grades and graduation rates at the baccalaureate level, and women
are three times more likely to earn degrees in education than are
men. Interestingly, perhaps due to family responsibilities, the
superior performance of women at the undergraduate level has not
yet translated to proportionately higher graduate school attendance:
Within four years of graduation, women and men enter graduate school
at an identical rate of 30% (U.S. Department of Education, 2001,
pp. i-vii, 1-2).
of an opportunity for women in the federal education field is the
extensive early retirement programs offered by the government in
the 1990s. Given that men occupied a disproportionately high number
of senior management positions, it would be expected that the impact
of retirement programs would fall disproportionately on men. This
trend is indeed felt in both the public and private sectors: the
Hudson Institute estimates that men will make up nearly 60% of all
departures from the workforce nationwide, through at least the year
2005 (Judy & DAmico, 1998, p. 113).
This research describes
the status and the progress of women in the federal governments
education career fields. While it is clear that the 1990sbrought
significant advancement for women educators, further research is
required to determine the reasons behind that progress. One optimistic
view would suggest that this snapshot of the 1990s documents a stage
in womens inexorable journey toward gender equity at work.
But those with less rosy perspectives can find ample room for concern.
Is it possible, for example, that the large influx of women into
the career field, which took women from a 46% minority to a 57%
majority in less than a decade, was merely a result of the strong
1990s economy drawing more men to the higher pay of the private
sector? Is it also possible that federal education will be increasingly
seen as womans work, subject to the social, economic,
and cultural biases implicit in such a designation? Until more research
is done in these areas, the causes of the 1990s progress will remain
Even so, for women
aspiring to careers in federal education employment, the news is
promising. It would be naïve to say that the glass ceiling
has been shattered. Still, women have made substantial progress
at moving into positions of upper management and senior leadership.
From those positions, it is not unreasonable to expect that they
can extend a helping hand to those women following behind them,
and allow the entire workforce to move in the direction of gender
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Dr. Bud Baker
is a Professor of Management at Wright State University.
Dr. Scott Graham
is an Assistant Professor of Organizational Leadership at Wright
Dr. Scott Williams
is an Assistant Professor of Management at Wright State University.