Phnesha Jefferson worked as a federal employee for over a decade. One of her more notable roles was serving as the chief of employee and labor relations for the U.S. Air Force.
"My position afforded me a unique vantage point," Jefferson said. "I am an African American woman who served in a leadership role, and I also managed the office responsible for employee grievances and often provided consultative services during the EEO [equal employment opportunity] complaint process."
While each federal agency she's worked for was diverse, that diversity did not extend to leadership positions. Jefferson once worked for an agency that "had the elusive glass ceiling," she said, and the lack of transparency regarding how to qualify for managerial positions created distrust, complaints and frustration.
Much research shows how women of color struggle to land leadership roles in the private sector. But Black, Hispanic and Native American women have also experienced a lack of representation in executive positions in federal jobs, according to new research by the federal government.
New EEOC Research Paints Alarming Picture
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in November released three reports focusing on American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) women, African American women, and Hispanic and Latina women in the federal government.
The main findings from American Indian and Alaska Native Women in the federal sector include that AIAN women:
- Accounted for less than 1 percent of the federal workforce in fiscal year 2020, which is more than twice their participation rate in the civilian labor force.
- Resigned at a rate of 3.6 percent higher than the governmentwide rate of 2.3 percent.
- Involuntarily separated from federal agencies at a rate of 0.8 percent—higher than the governmentwide rate of 0.5 percent.
- Are proportionately represented among managers and supervisors, but account for only 0.4 percent of executives.
- Earned a median annual salary of $56,432—about $26,200 less than all federal employees and $22,800 less than all women.
Black women in the federal sector:
- Comprised nearly 12 percent of the federal workforce—nearly twice their participation in the civilian labor force.
- Resigned at a rate of 2.5 percent, slightly higher than the governmentwide average.
- Involuntarily separated at a rate of 0.6 percent, slightly higher than the governmentwide average.
- Accounted for 7.3 percent of executives despite accounting for 11.7 percent of the overall workforce.
- Earned, on average, $12,597 less than other federal employees and $9,206 less than all women.
Hispanic and Latina women in the federal sector:
- Made up 6.2 percent of the civilian labor force but accounted for only 4.5 percent of federal employees in 2020.
- Resigned from federal employers at a rate of 4.5 percent, nearly twice the average for all employees governmentwide (2.3 percent).
- Involuntarily separated from federal employers at a rate higher than women overall and employees governmentwide.
- Held first-line supervisory positions in federal agencies at a higher rate (5.6 percent) than their participation in the federal workforce (4.3 percent of permanent employees), but they were underrepresented as managers (3.5 percent) and executives (1.9 percent).
- On average were paid $67,816 annually. They were paid less than Hispanic and Latino men ($76,802), women overall ($79,278), and employees governmentwide ($82,669).
"The barriers faced by different groups of women are sometimes hidden in larger data," Dexter Brooks, associate director of the EEOC's Office of Federal Operations, said in a statement. "We hope these reports provide federal agencies and those working to implement Executive Order 14035 with information that can be leveraged to address the significant pay gaps and separation issues identified in these reports."
Moving the Goal Posts
Jefferson, who is now the CEO of consulting firm Total Force Support in Manhattan Beach, Calif., often refers to the saying, "It's not what you know; it's who you know," when discussing the challenges people of color, particularly women of color, face in the federal sector.
"The main obstacles women of color face are the lack of an established track record and presence in the corporate structure," she said. "There are existing networks in place established for many years that did not include women of color."
When opportunities for growth or mentorship in federal sectors arise, women of color often hit a roadblock because they do not have influential leaders that provide guidance to support their careers, Jefferson explained.
She added that many federal agencies and private companies do not have a single woman of color in their leadership ranks, leaving underrepresented women struggling to visualize themselves in those positions.
"I have been heavily involved in the exit interview process over the past 20 years and received consistent feedback from women of color," she explained. "One of the major themes is the moving of the goal post."
As she explained, some of the frustrations stemmed from not being selected for a management position and being told that if they get a degree, an additional certification or more years of experience, then they would be qualified. But the women Jefferson met with said they would obtain the degree, the certification or additional years of experience and would still be rejected based on something else they lacked.
"Many women had gone through several cycles of the goal post moving before they finally moved on to another employer," she said.
Ensuring Equal, Fair Treatment
As a career coach, Octavia Goredema supports women who are passed over for leadership opportunities, who have co-workers who do not respect them, and who feel they need to work twice as hard yet earn significantly less than their peers.
Goredema, a Los Angeles-based author, said that being a woman of color in the workplace doesn't just exert an emotional tax on women's ability to thrive, but it can also decimate their careers and earning potential.
"HR professionals need to work in partnership with leaders of their organizations to develop a pipeline for sponsorship of women of color, at all levels of seniority," she said. "Sponsors become advocates for advancement."
Stephen Paskoff, a former litigator with the EEOC, said the federal sector can support the careers of women of color by:
- Ensuring each agency's actions match their core values and standards.
- Regularly communicating the consequences when rules are not followed.
- Articulating a desire to hire and promote the best talent.
- Holding everyone accountable for following organizational standards.
"Having the best talent attracts and retains the best talent, but simply having these employees is not enough," Paskoff said. "Federal employees deserve equal, fair opportunities—not just in pay but also how they're treated in meetings, discussions and work-day conversations."