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Women as Leaders: Local, State and Federal Government

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Andrew Vaz
March 6, 2015

Vaz march

I am a young professional, starting on the path of what I believe is a happy, fulfilled life in the public sector. What is interesting about my journey thus far is the amount of opportunities presented to me in the labor force by women.

I had jobs at the federal, state and local levels; all under the supervision of a female leader who encouraged my development and advancement within the department. I benefited greatly from the tutelage of many women leaders in my life.

However, I am also aware of the disproportionate amount of leadership roles not awarded to women. This month, I celebrate Women’s History Month by discussing the lack of women within leadership positions in the public sector and how government can begin to promote and encourage women to pursue executive positions.

The Representation of Women in Government 

One of the biggest misconceptions concerning women in the public sector is that they are underrepresented. While that may be the case in the majority of leadership positions; in fact, women are overrepresented in the majority of government jobs. The overrepresentation of women in the public and nonprofit sectors is associated with two common factors: greater offerings of family-friendly practices and higher attraction of men for certain fringe benefits that are more frequently provided by the for-profit sector.

The 2008 recession revealed much about the state of employment within the public sector: the disproportionate share of women and African-American working in state and local government has translated into higher rates of job loss for both groups in these sectors. Between 2007 (before the recession) and 2011, state and local governments shed about 765,000 jobs. Women and African-American comprised about 70 percent and 20 percent, respectively, of those losses. Conversely, Hispanic employment in state and local public-sector jobs increased during this period (although most of that increase likely occurred in the lowest-paid jobs).

Challenges facing Women in the Public Sector 

We cannot ignore the problems that remain for women who aspire to be great leaders in their community. The public sector, as promising as it is, still has many significant challenges. 

Wage Gap: In the public sector, women make less money than men. Overall, the wage gap across genders is similar in the state and local public sectors and in the private sector. However, it is smaller for highly educated women employed in state and local government. State and local public-sector workers of color face smaller wage disparities across racial lines. Yet at some levels of education, they actually enjoy a wage premium over similarly educated white workers.

Lawmakers in Washington, D.C. took action to fix this discrepancy. In 2009, President Barack Obama signed into law the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay act which amends the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to declare that an unlawful employment practice occurs when: (1) a discriminatory compensation decision or other practice is adopted; (2) an individual becomes subject to the decision or practice; or (3) an individual is affected by application of the decision or practice, including each time wages, benefits or other compensation is paid.

Prejudice and Discrimination: Although the public sector has made strides to eliminate discrimination, women will still face unfair treatment in the workforce. While some would argue that the United States’ labor market today is largely free of prejudice and discrimination, a substantial and growing body of research suggests that gender- and race-based prejudices continue to afflict the U.S. workforce. These prejudices often take the form of wage disparities. Today, women earn only 77 cents for every dollar paid to their male counterparts, and the situation is worse for African-American and Hispanic women, who earn only 62 cents and 54 cents, respectively, for every dollar paid to their non-Hispanic white male counterparts (National Women’s Law Center 2012). Furthermore, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission continues to win settlements against employers in race discrimination cases based on compensation disparities. Though discrimination in the public sector likely still exists, government remains a model of how to achieve greater equality in employment and workplace diversity.

The Future of Women in the Public Sector 

The 21st century shows much promise. The possibility exists for the election of the first woman president of the United States. However, the effort must be made on lawmakers’ at all three levels of government (federal, state and local) to hire and train more women as leaders.

In the United States, at present, 35 percent of public sector leaders are women. While we’re ranked in the top five around the world for representation, this is still disappointing, given that 51 percent of the population is female. We rule in numbers, but that appears to be it. There must be a combined effort on both the public and nonprofit sectors on strategic training for aspiring women leaders. Such a joint partnership would be beneficially for women (and men) as it will seek to eliminate discrimination and provide an ‘even playing field’ for all job seekers. The future looks promising, but the work begins right now.


Author: Andrew R Vaz, M.S., M.P.A. is a doctoral student in Public Policy and Administration program at Walden University. He is a graduate of the Master of Science in Criminal Justice and Master of Public Administration double master’s program at Florida International University. He can be reached at [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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