Gains for Diversity in the Feds' Top Ranks

Nowadays the government's elite Senior Executive Service has many more minority and female members and fewer white males

Everyone knows about the glass ceiling, the invisible barrier that has long excluded many women and minorities from the ranks of upper management. But glass ceilings don't exist only in the private sector. And now comes word that in federal government, that ceiling has started to crack.

Just above the top levels of the federal government's civil service is the Senior Executive Service, a corps of about 6,200 program directors and other managers who earn $110,000 to $130,000 a year. Over the past decade or so, this group, while still mostly white and male, has gained many more female and minority faces.


  A recent study by the General Accounting Office found that from 1990 to 1999, the proportion of women holding career senior-executive jobs more than doubled, from 10% to 22%. Blacks, Latinos, and other minorities rose from 7% of the group to 13%. At the same time, the proportion of white men dropped from 84% to 69%. One reason for these changes: White men who retired in the 1990s made room for women and minority candidates, the report says.

Career members of the Senior Executive Service come largely from the civil service. In addition, the service is home to a small number (650) of political appointees.

The study also looked at 24 federal agencies that employ most of the career members of the Senior Executive Service, and found great variation in the gender and racial composition of their workforces. At the end of the '90s, for example, women accounted for 42% of the executives in the Office of Personnel Management -- but only 13% in the Office of Veteran Affairs. Minority group members filled 35% of the executive jobs at the Small Business Administration but only 3% at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Figures from three high-profile agencies indicate that women made up 25% of the Executive Service members at the State Dept., 17% at the Justice Dept., and 18% at NASA. For minorities, the figures were 5% at State, 13% at Justice, and 14% at the space agency.


  The findings don't mean that the task of diversifying the top career jobs in government is complete, equal-employment advocates assert. In a letter to the GAO suggesting the numbers could be read to paint an overly rosy portrait, Ida Castro, chairwoman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, wrote that when the percentages of women and minorities in the Senior Executive Service are compared to a group that supplies the service -- the two top tiers of the civil service -- the Executive Service comes up short. For example, about 27% of the top civil-service jobs are held by women -- five points more than in the Executive Service.

And on top of that, women and minorities in lower grades of the civil service could be encountering glass-ceiling problems that prevent them from advancing to upper ranks. Indeed, excluding the Executive Service folks, the 1.6 million member federal workforce is 44% female and 30% minority.

By Pamela Mendels in New York

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