Project Management Institute

Women in federal project management careers

how are they faring?


It's not easy to change the English language, but two Wall Street Journal reporters did exactly that 15 years ago. They were describing a system of invisible barriers, which impeded the career advancement of women in the American workforce:

Even those few women who rose steadily through the ranks eventually crashed into an invisible barrier. The executive suite seemed within their grasp, but they just couldn't break through the glass ceiling (Hymowitz & Schellhardt 1986).

Since that groundbreaking article, the term “glass ceiling” has become part of our vocabulary, and even of our law. The 1991 Civil Rights Act established the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission (FGCC), which was charged with identifying the causes of gender discrimination in the workplace and recommending strategies to eliminate it.

The FGCC studied the glass ceiling in both private and public sectors for four years. In so doing, it determined that the federal government itself demonstrated glass ceiling characteristics, where women in any given career field were overrepresented in the lower levels of the field, and underrepresented at the higher levels. For example, in 1990 only 6.2% of federally employed women were at or above the level of middle management, but male representation at those same levels was more than four times greater: nearly 28% of federally employed men were at or above the middle management level (A Solid Investment 1995, p. 35).

Exhibit 1. Average Salary by Career Field and Gender, 1991 and 1998

Average Salary by Career Field and Gender, 1991 and 1998

Faced with this sort of data, the FGCC released its final report in 1995. In that report, the FGCC called on the federal government to pursue a number of initiatives aimed at breaking the glass ceiling. Above all, the FGCC recommended that the government get its own house in order, leading by example:

Government at all levels must be a leader in the quest to make equal opportunity a reality for minorities and women. The commission recommends that all government agencies, as employers, increase their efforts to eliminate internal glass ceilings by examining their practices for promoting qualified minorities and women to senior management and decision-making positions (A Solid Investment 1995, p. 4).

This paper will examine the progress made toward gender equity in the years following the Civil Rights Act of 1991 and the establishment of the FGCC. More specifically, it will look at five career fields found in a typical federal acquisition project management office, and the progress toward gender equity in each. First, it will be necessary to examine the overall federal white-collar workforce, its grade structure, and its demographics. Then we can look at a representative acquisition project management office, and the career fields comprising it.

The Federal Workforce

In 1991, at the beginning of the period covered by this report, the Federal government employed just over two million civilians, 83% of whom were considered white-collar employees. Women made up nearly half of these white-collar workers (49.1%). The average pay for white-collar men was nearly $41,000, for women only about $28,000; thus women in the aggregate earned about 70% of what their male counterparts did (Occupations of Federal White-Collar and Blue-Collar Workers 1991, pp. 1–12). Women earned so much less than men because they tended to be clustered either in fields with limited upward mobility (secretarial, clerical), or at the lower grade levels in other fields.

This requires some explanation. Most white-collar federal employees are paid based on what is known as the “General Schedule” (GS). This is made up of fifteen grade levels, from the lowest (GS-1) to the highest (GS-15). Within each grade level are ten “steps,” incremental pay increases based largely but not completely upon seniority (5 USC, § 5332). Above GS-15 there exist special pay plans for the most senior leaders, e.g., the Senior Executive Service, Senior Diplomatic Service. As a rough comparison, a GS-12 is similar to an Army or Air Force captain, and a GS-15 is equivalent to a colonel. The Senior pay plans can be thought of as equivalent to generals and admirals in the military (Federal Civilian Workforce Statistics, Employment and Trends, p. 5).

In 1991, the average GS-grade for white-collar women was 7.50, and the median grade was GS-7. For men, the average grade was 10.38, and the median grade was GS-11 (Occupations 1991, p. 11).

Acquisition Project Management in the Federal Government

The Federal government uses all sorts of hardware and software, but produces almost none of it. Instead, the government acquires from industry a wide variety of goods and services, from aircraft to submarines, from laptops to supercomputers, from hospital equipment to space shuttles.

Much of this procurement is done through acquisition project offices, in which teams of government specialists perform different functions. Project managers, often with business backgrounds, design acquisition strategy, coordinate the work of other specialists, and have overall responsibility for the project. Engineers evaluate and approve the technical work done by their industry counterparts. Logisticians plan for support of the system, including training, supply, spare parts and maintenance. Financial managers oversee budgeting and cost/schedule performance of the project, while contracting specialists develop and manage contractual vehicles to acquire and support the system being procured. This paper will examine the status and progress of women in each of these fields.

Project Managers in the GS-1101 Career Field

There is no single career field covering acquisition project managers. Many are in the General Business career field (GS-1101), but that can vary depending on the particular federal agency involved and on the stage of the project. For example, Aeronautical Systems Center, the Air Force's largest user of acquisition project managers, classifies its project managers as GS-1101, regardless of whether the manager's background is in engineering, logistics, finance or another field. Not all federal agencies, though, follow the same practice (Scarlata, 2001). For the purposes of this discussion, however, our focus will be on men and women in career field GS-1101, General Business and Industry, many of whom serve in project management positions.

In 1991, there were nearly 17,000 men and women in the GS-1101 field. Most (57.1%) were women, but those women earned dramatically less money ($28,200) than their male counterparts ($44,700). This ratio of just 63.1% suggests an especially powerful glass ceiling effect: the wage disparity between men and women GS-1101s is far greater than the gap in the other four fields (Occupations 1991, p. 34).

Given this pay disparity, it is perhaps not surprising that there is a similar disparity when one compares the ratio of men to women at higher levels of management. While women made up 57.l% of the GS-1101 field, they comprised only 25.5% of upper management (at or above GS-13). Looking at the most senior leadership positions (above GS-15), only 11.4% were filled by women (Occupations 1991, pp. 73 – 74).

From 1991 to 1998, the picture brightened somewhat for women in the 1101 field. Pay equity improved, though it still lagged badly behind the other fields, with women's pay at 71% of men's. The percentage of women at or above GS-13 climbed from 25.5 to 30.5%, while the proportion of women in senior executive positions increased from 11.4 to 17.0% (Occupations 1998, pp. 48, 63).

Exhibit 2. Gender Mix of Five Career Fields, 1991 and 1998, in Percentage

Gender Mix of Five Career Fields, 1991 and 1998, in Percentage


The 0800 career designation combines 33 different fields in the areas of engineering and architecture, and included over 170,000 people in 1991. The largest of the fields (electronics engineering) had over 30,000 people, the smallest (ceramics engineering) had just 69 (Occupations 1991, p. 34).

For reasons that go far beyond the scope of this paper, relatively few women go into the engineering field. In 1991, fewer than 9% of government engineers were female, and those women earned $37,400 annually, about 81% of the $45,900 brought home by male engineers. The low proportion of female engineers in upper management suggests that a strong glass ceiling was present in this field: only 4.8% of women were at or above the level of GS-13, and an anemic 1.7% of senior executive engineers were above the GS-15 grade (Occupations 1991, p. 34, 70–71). The period between 1991 and 1998 brought substantial progress for women in engineering, despite the fact that the career field declined by nearly 20,000 people. While the overall percentage of women in the field increased only slightly (from 8.9 to 10.0%), the proportion of women in senior positions increased markedly. In 1991, the percentage of women in upper management was just 4.8%. By 1998, though, the percentage of women at or above the GS-13 level rose to 8.6, compared to women's overall representation of 10%. Progress at the most senior levels was similarly dramatic: of all engineers above GS-15 in 1991, women made up just 1.7%, but that rate nearly tripled (to 4.8%) by 1998. Pay equity improved as well: in 1991, women engineers made 81.5% of men, and that ratio rose to 89.4% by 1998 (Occupations 1998, pp. 39, 62).


In 1991, there were nearly 11,000 civilian logisticians (GS-0346) on the federal payroll, with the vast majority in the Department of Defense. About a fourth (26.8%) were women (1991 data, p. 110). Logisticians’ pay in 1991 was more gender-equitable than any other project-related field: women in logistics made $39,300, about 87% of male logisticians’ pay (Occupations 1991, pp. 30, 110).

While women made up just under 27% of all logisticians in 1991, they comprised just 16.6% of those logistics specialists at and above the GS-13 level. The numbers at the senior executive level, above GS-15, were far lower: only 5.4% of those most senior leaders were women in 1991.

Exhibit 3. Gender Mix in Five Career Fields, 1991 and 1998, GS-13 and Above, in Percentage

Gender Mix in Five Career Fields, 1991 and 1998, GS-13 and Above, in Percentage

From 1991 to 1998, female logisticians saw their prospects improve. Pay equity increased to 90%, so that logistics remained the most gender-equitable of the project-related career fields. The career field grew modestly, while the proportion of women in the field grew substantially, from about 27% to 30%. Female logisticians in upper management prospered, climbing from 16.6% to 22.0% of the logistics workforce. The picture for senior executives was more complex: the number of senior logisticians (above GS-15) remained at just two from 1991 to 1998. But there had been an overall reduction in the field's senior ranks in those years, so that the percentage of senior executives who were female rose from 5.4% in 1991 to 8.3% seven years later (Occupations 1998, pp. 36, 57).

Financial Managers

Financial management (GS-0505) is by far the smallest of these five career fields, with only 1,837 people in 1991. About a fourth (24.2%) were women, and those women earned in the aggregate about 81% of their male counterparts’ pay, $49,200 compared to $60,500 (Occupations 1991, p. 30).

As with the other fields, women in 1991 were underrepresented in the upper ranks, compared to men. Only about 18.5% of financial managers at or above GS-13 were female, as were only 9% of the most senior women, those above GS-15 (Occupations 1991, pp. 64–65).

By 1998, prospects for female financial managers had improved dramatically. Pay for female financial managers rose to $65,600, about 86.7% of men's pay. Upper management, at or above GS-13, was 26.9% female, just below the 30.5% female makeup of the financial management workforce as a whole. The number of female senior executives increased by 150%, from 10 in 1991 to 25 in 1998, so that 21.4% of senior executives were women. This is the best of the five career fields in terms of women's opportunity to reach positions of senior leadership—with women comprising only 30% of the career field; a senior executive rate of 21.4% represents a favorable situation compared to the other fields (Occupations 1998, pp. 37, 59).


Women made up the majority of the contracting field throughout the 1990s. In 1991, women comprised 55.8% of all contract specialists, with an average salary of $36,500. This was about 84% of men's pay, $43,600 (Occupations 1991, p. 34).

Exhibit 4. Gender Mix in Five Career Fields, 1991 and 1998, Senior Executives (above GS-15), in Percentage

Gender Mix in Five Career Fields, 1991 and 1998, Senior Executives (above GS-15), in Percentage

This disparity suggests that, like the other fields, contracting was characterized by relatively greater proportions of women at lower ranks, and smaller proportions of women in higher grades. This was exactly the case in 1991: women were 55.8% of the field overall, 61.6% of those below GS-13, but only 37.6% of those at or above the GS-13 level. At the highest ranks, those senior executives above GS-15, the 1991 statistics were abysmal: in a career field where women are in the majority, only 4 of 84 senior executives—4.8%—were female (Occupations 1991, pp. 72–73).

The picture by 1998 was substantially different, and, for women, substantially improved. While the overall size of the career field declined by about 10%, the proportion of women increased to 59%. Upper management ranks were 45.8% women, up from 37.6%. But the most dramatic increase was in the senior executive ranks: while the number of senior contracting leaders (above GS-15) declined from 84 to 69, the number of women there rose from four to nineteen, an increase of 375% from 1991 to 1998 (Occupations 1998, p. 64).


In 1991, the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission was established to improve the opportunities for women in the workplace. For these five project-related career fields, improvement did occur between 1991 and 1998. In some areas, the improvement was modest; in some areas, substantial; in a few categories, dramatic. Despite these improvements, women have yet to reach parity with men, either in pay or promotion. Only when that happens will the glass ceiling be a thing of the past.


Hymowitz, Carol, and Schellhardt, Timothy D. 1986, March 24. The Glass Ceiling: Why Women Can't Seem to Break the Invisible Barrier That Blocks Them From the Top Jobs. The Wall Street Journal, p. 1.

Scarlata, Donna, Director of Human Resources, Aeronautical Systems Center, Wright-Patterson AFB, OH. 2001, February 14. Interview.

United States. Federal Glass Ceiling Commission. 1995, November. A Solid Investment: Making Full Use of the Nation's Human Capital. Washington, DC.

United States. Office of Personnel Management. Federal Civilian Workforce Statistics. 2000, July. Employment and Trends as of May 2000. Washington, DC.

United States. Office of Personnel Management, Statistical Analysis and Services Division. 1991, Sept. 30. Occupations of Federal White-Collar and Blue-Collar Workers. Federal Civilian Workforce Statistics as of September 1991. Washington, DC.

United States. Office of Personnel Management. Federal Civilian Workforce Statistics. 1998, September. Occupations of Federal White-Collar and Blue Collar Workers as of September 30, 1997. Washington, DC.

U.S.C. Title 5 §5332. Available: [2 Oct 00].

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Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
November 1–10, 2001 • Nashville, Tenn., USA



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