By Medha Imam
Rebecca Ayers crawls out of bed with her phone in tow and ambles into her home office. From the moment she wakes up to the second she clocks out, Ayers leads a team of workers from three different states through a trail of instant messages, emails, phone and video conference calls.
She doesn’t work for a big company or even a startup. As the manager for performance management solutions at the Office of Personnel Management Ayers is one of just 30 percent of females who currently work in the world of federal IT.
Working remotely from North Carolina, Ayers has taken an antiquated paper system for performance management and brought it into the digital world, streamlining the process and potentially saving the government hundreds of thousands of dollars. And she did it while teleworking, or working remotely via a virtual environment, which gave her a level of privacy and freedom she enjoys.
Expanding its focus on technology has become a goal of the government as it increases funding for nascent initiatives like the U.S. Digital Service.
President Barack Obama’s 2016 budget proposes 25 new programs — at a cost of $105 million — to serve as incubators inside federal agencies. The administration says the cost savings from these efforts would pay for the increase in funding for digital initiatives.
The federal digital workforce, like the tech industry overall, struggles with gender parity. According to FedScope data from OPM, 77 percent of new hires in public sector IT jobs in fiscal year 2014 were male.
“There are occupations like law enforcement and still, to a considerable degree, information technology, where a lot of people in the occupation, as well as entering it, are still men,” said James Read, the director of policy and evaluation at the Merit Systems Protection Board.
According to FedScope, the number of women in federal IT varies by agency, ranging from 26.5 percent in the Department of Transportation to 46 percent in the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“The numbers still look better for the federal government than they do for Silicon Valley,” said Kristen Van Riper, senior director at the Corporate Executive Board Company or CEB. “Although, that’s not at all an encouraging statistic.”
In a 2011 report titled “Women in the Federal Government: Ambitions and Achievements,” MSPB concluded that the difficulty of recruiting qualified females changed by occupation, stating that “agencies filling positions in fields such as law enforcement, engineering, and information technology may find that qualified women are comparatively scarce.”
Lon Zanetta, the former chief information officer for the Federal Reserve and now senior executive adviser at CEB, attributed this gender gap to the fact that “so few women self-select into the IT profession.”
Women with degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – commonly known as STEM fields – held only 24 percent of STEM jobs, according to the most current figures from the Department of Commerce. And while disinterest in STEM isn’t the only reason for the lower percentage of women in IT, it’s definitely a factor: In 1985, 35 percent of women graduated with a computer science degree. Today, only 18 percent of computer science graduates are women.
With fewer female STEM degree-holders, the applicant pool remains disproportionate and presents a challenge to efforts made by the federal government to recruit women into STEM positions.
“Unless we increase the pipeline of women in computer science, we’re just poaching the talent from each other,” Van Riper said.
To encourage more women to pursue careers in STEM fields, the Obama administration launched itsEducate to Innovate campaign in 2009. Last year, President Barack Obama boosted the government’s commitment to STEM by investing $28 million in STEM education.
Agencies are also employing innovative solutions to further address the gender parity in federal IT. CEB emphasizes the imperative of making “flexible work schedules the default for all levels.”
“This is where the federal government can really outcompete some of the private sector firms,” Van Riper said. “Our research has shown that flexible work schedules dramatically improve the ability to retain women across their career.”
“People are willing to do the work,” Ayers said. “They want to be engaged. They want to be at these organizations, but sometimes you have to work a little bit with them in terms of their other life commitments. Every time you’re willing to do that, you get people who are more committed, more engaged to work.”
In fact, newly formed 18F—a digital branch of the General Services Administration–and OPM both heavily supports telework as a way to retain a diverse workforce.
“We have many women on the 18F team,” said Ori Hoffer, communications manager at 18F. “We’re working on being as diverse as possible. That is a hallmark of our recruiting efforts. We just want to get the best people we can from as many backgrounds as we can because those are the people who are using government services, which is everybody. And they have to serve everybody.”
By facilitating flexible work schedules even at the executive levels, women like Ayers are able to maintain their leadership and still produce results.
“Through telework, the federal government ensures that everyone is focused on just outcomes, not whether or not they are in the office,” Van Riper said.
Increasing “visibility into leadership opportunities” and providing more “proactive career pathing” are imperatives highlighted by CEB as low-cost, short-term responses to the gender gap issue that will prove beneficial for federal IT.
Fortune magazine in July 2014 found companies received higher average financial returns during the tenures of female CEOs. Tech companies like Facebook also noted the benefits of cognitive diversity—the ability to see and approach problems in many different ways. Through cognitive diversity, institutions are able to sense and perceive risks differently and, ultimately, mitigate them to avoid a negative impact.
By applying these hiring strategies, the federal government has been making strides to employ a more gender-diverse workforce.
“Equal employment opportunity and diversity management have been issues in the federal government that has received more attention than the private sector for quite a while,” said Ariane Hegewisch, study director for the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
Hegewisch mentioned the government’s efforts to publicly advertise jobs along with earnings and criteria for progression are part of their “very rigorous” equal opportunity policy.
However, MSPB’s Read notes how agencies may ignore opportunities for outreach when it comes to hiring women due to limitations of the government’s hiring system and the looming threat of budget cuts, which could halt these new recruiting efforts.
“If our country’s tech industry is going to stay at the cutting edge, we have to enlist the creativity and ingenuity of all Americans,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., in a statement. “Unfortunately, right now there are a lot of talented people who don’t have a seat at the table. We need to do more to increase opportunities for women and minorities.”