03/06/2012 12:38 pm ET Updated May 06, 2012

Do Women Feel Less Empowered in Your Federal Agency?

Do men and women working for the federal government have different perceptions of their jobs and work environments?

This is one of the questions that my organization, the Partnership for Public Service, set out to answer in Gender Gaps and Racial/Ethnic Divides, a new Best Places to Work in the Federal Government analysis, based on data from the Office of Personnel Management's 2011 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.

The analysis found that women, who comprise about 44 percent of the federal workforce, offered more positive views about their jobs and workplaces than men did. This government-wide view represents a shift from 2010, when the workplace satisfaction score for men was higher. But on specific issues of fairness and empowerment in the workplace, men were still more satisfied than women.

As always, government-wide scores tell one story, but the agency-specific information may offer another perspective. I encourage federal managers to take a look at the analysis and federal survey data to see how your agency stacks up and, if needed, to take action to improve the work environment. Here is some advice to help get you started:

Diagnose the problem. A good employee survey will not give you all the answers, but it will help you to know what questions to ask. So, in looking at the data underlying the current Best Places rankings and comparing responses by gender, race and national origin, the first step is to identify any major discrepancies. For example, does it show in your agency that male employees are significantly more likely to report that they feel empowered in the workplace and involved in decision-making than women report they are? If yes, look further. Is this difference in perceptions widespread in the organization or is it isolated in particular subcomponents?

Talk to employees and ask for their help interpreting the results. Is there reason to believe that it reflects reality? Is there data outside of the survey that might lend support to the possibility that there is a problem that needs to be addressed? For example, are your agency's turnover rates higher for women than men, or are more formal complaints being filed by one group or the other?

Develop hypotheses. Once you have determined that there is a problem, try to determine what may be causing it. In research terms, you should develop one or more hypotheses and then test each to see if a potential cause could be real. For example, one might assume that women are concentrated in lower grade levels than men and, thus, are less involved in decision-making.

That's a hypothesis that -- in part at least -- is fairly easy to examine. Are there proportionally more women at lower grade levels compared to men? If yes, take a look at your survey data to see if women at higher grades differ in their perceptions from women in lower grades. If they are no major differences among women based on their level in the organization, perhaps something else is at play. Might the differences be driven by differences in the occupations held? Might one or two senior managers be disproportionately involved? Are resources divided unequally?

Act on what you've discovered. There may not be any easy answers for addressing the problems you have uncovered, but there may be some "low-hanging fruit" in terms of actions that can be taken. You don't have to do everything on your own. Delegate and assign accountability focused on results. There may be a number of paths that can take you to the same objective. If possible, let subordinate managers or employees determine which path might work best for them or for the organization.

Be transparent and follow through. Let employees know what you plan to do. Then do it, and be sure employees know that it's been done. Maybe it's a change in policy. Perhaps it's a new system to proactively gather employee ideas. Ask for feedback and be persistent. Change takes time and not everything works as intended. Be ready to adapt as needed.

Have you as a manager dealt with issues of gender inequality in the federal workplace or as an employee felt less empowered and a sense of unfairness based on your gender? Please share your experiences and ideas by leaving a comment or emailing me at

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