Blog Inclusion in Public Sector Workplaces

Two Steps Forward on the Road to Gender Equity…and Many More Needed

road between pine trees
by Heather Getha-Taylor:

The journey toward a public service workplace that fully embraces equal opportunity and celebrates diversity is one that is ongoing. It is marked by both strides and setbacks. We celebrate markers of progress, such as the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009.

However, there remain challenges that many professional women in the United States still encounter on the road to equity. This post identifies three pressing priorities for advancing improved inclusion. 

  1. Address insufficient family and medical leave. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993 marked a significant improvement in responding to the needs of workers to attend to pressing health needs. However, nearly 30 years later, its unpaid structure offers little real support for workers, especially women. Herr, Roy, and Klerman’s 2020 study revealed that women take advantage of FMLA’s provisions more than their male colleagues, the length of their leave is longer, they are less likely to find ways to fill the pay gap during their leave, and they have greater unmet needs for family and medical leave. While FMLA served as a valuable first step, additional work is needed to advance more comprehensive coverage to help balance the different realities of caregiving that men and women face.  
  2. Investigate and correct the enduring gender pay gap. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 represented a major achievement in advancing the goal of pay equity by resetting the 180-day statute of limitations with each discriminatory paycheck. A 2020 report from the Government Accountability Office revealed some good news on this front: the gender pay gap in the federal government has narrowed from 19 cents in 1999 to 7 cents in 2017. However, a more in-depth look at the data revealed a troubling finding: the pay gap remains greater for Hispanic, Black, and American Indian or Alaska Native women. This report speaks to entrenched pay discrimination for women of color, an issue which must be identified and corrected whenever it exists in the public service workplace. 
  3. Confront gender bias to crack the glass ceiling. We still have much work to do to ensure equal paths to leadership in the public service workplace, especially at the local government level. According to the International City/County Management Association, just 20% of chief administrative officers are women (2021 data). While this disparity is the result of a variety of forces, it is important to consider how gender bias perpetuates such a pattern. According to a 2021 IBM report, gender bias remains a contemporary concern with 38% of women reporting gender bias in their workplace. An example of such bias is the double-bind that women face when they are disliked for being assertive, but not seen as leaders when they are nice. This bias blinds us to the possibility that women leaders can be both assertive and nice.  

The government workplace is the public’s workplace. Responding to these and other issues that stand in the way of gender equity should be a priority for those who work for, direct, fund, and interact with public agencies. That includes public service leaders, scholars, politicians, and citizens. It is critical that we continue to identify opportunities for greater inclusion, question how we can improve existing policies/practices, and work together to advance gender equity in meaningful and lasting ways. 

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About the author:

Heather Getha-Taylor, Professor in the KU School of Public Affairs and Administration (SPAA), serves as Editor-in-Chief of Public Personnel Management. She is the author or co-author of over 60 articles, book chapters, and other scholarly reports. Her article, “Identifying Collaborative Competencies,” received the Best Article Award from Review of Public Personnel Administration. Her collaborative project on leadership training evaluation was recognized by the Kansas City chapter of the American Society for Training and Development (with Jonathan Morris and Michele Biddison). In 2016, she received the KU Steeples Service to Kansans Award for her commitment to engaged scholarship.