With more than 800,000 foreign-policy employees, the U.S. federal government is the largest employer of foreign-policy professionals in the country; its staffing choices determine the impact of its policies, both in the United States and around the world. The largest in terms of staff, it is also among the worst in terms of gender disparity. Women accounted for one-third of the U.S. government’s foreign-policy staff as of 2018, significantly less than their share of the country’s total workforce (47 percent).
This severe underrepresentation of women is leaving a key talent pool untapped. It prevents U.S. foreign-policy agencies from fully benefiting from the intellect, perspective, and skill sets women can bring to bear in tackling the world’s most vexing challenges. Eliminating this disparity could carry considerable implications for global gender inequality—particularly given that women and girls are disproportionately affected by war, insecurity, natural disasters, and economic instability.
While this issue is garnering more public attention—with advocates and activists calling on the U.S. government to hire and promote more women within the foreign-policy apparatus—the magnitude of the problem and its development over time have remained unknown. Further, the specific causes of gender disparity in individual foreign-policy agencies have not been investigated, making it exceedingly difficult to pinpoint solutions.
To address this gap, FP Analytics has undertaken a first-of-its-kind analysis of federal government agencies across all fields of foreign policy, including defense, international development, trade and investment, diplomacy, and national security. The study marries data analysis to insights shared by women who are current or former foreign-policy professionals, illuminating the specific barriers preventing women from reaching their full potential. As part of this effort, FP Analytics created the first-ever index tracking the status and progress of women’s employment, advancement, leadership, and retention in 15 key U.S. foreign-policy agencies. This index not only reveals agencies’ performance; it is intended to be used as a tool for targeting improvement within specific agencies, holding the government accountable, and recognizing progress toward achieving gender parity across its foreign-policy workforce.
This study reveals the clear passion and drive women have for careers in foreign policy. However, women are being held back on each rung of the proverbial ladder. Despite graduating from international-relations degrees at a higher rate than men, women are not being hired at the same rate, and their presence decreases at each stage of seniority. But once women have made it in the door, various cultural and institutional barriers in government hold them back and contribute to their being 30 percent more likely than men to resign—undermining their advancement and potential contribution to the field.
Addressing this ongoing problem will require diligent work to tackle harassment and discrimination and create a more inclusive workplace culture for women. Alongside this cultural change, practical steps can and must be taken to ensure open and competitive hiring practices, strengthen support for a healthy work-life balance, and invest in women's professional development.
Women’s Employment Backsliding
Despite remaining stable and near parity in domestic-policy agencies, women’s employment in foreign-policy agencies has decreased steadily since 2008. This problem afflicts foreign-policy agencies across all fields. Not only did women’s representation decrease in the military, which has been long dominated by men, but also across development, economics, and national-security agencies. In 2008, women made up just one-third of employees in the military services (the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard), a share which has dropped further, to 30 percent, over the course of the past decade. Despite achieving gender parity a decade ago, nonmilitary foreign-policy agencies as a whole have also seen women’s portion of the workforce backslide to 47 percent as of 2018.
A persistent gender imbalance in new hires is contributing to the shrinking overall percentage of female employees over time. Two-thirds of foreign-policy agencies—including all military services, economic, diplomatic, and national-security agencies, as well as the Overseas Private Investment Corporation—hired more men than women on average each year over the 2008-2018 period. In 2018, more than 70 percent of them hired more men than women, as the average representation of women among new hires at those agencies fell to just 36 percent. This is despite the higher percentage of women than men trained in international relations and affairs over that period. From 2009 to 2017, women on average accounted for 56 percent of graduates with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the field, based on data sourced from the National Center for Education Statistics.
Share of Women in Overall Employment as of 2018 vs. Change Since 2008
Despite remaining stable and near parity in domestic-policy agencies, women’s employment in foreign-policy agencies has decreased steadily since 2008. This problem afflicts foreign-policy agencies across all fields, particularly in defense, the military, economics, and national security.
Policies designed to encourage the hiring of specific groups or recruiting for specialized roles have in some cases unintentionally created barriers to women’s entry into the foreign-policy workforce. One such policy is veterans’ preference, which automatically awards 5 or 10 points to veterans applying for open positions through the USAJobs points-based application process. This policy naturally disadvantages women, who remain a small minority in the military service: As of 2015, women represented just 9.4 percent of the veteran population, and although women are being accepted into more combat roles, by 2043 women are projected to reach just 16.3 percent of all living veterans. Moreover, a 2015 government report also found that men are 60 percent more likely than women to be hired via veterans’ preference.
This hiring disparity particularly affects foreign-policy agencies, which often attract veterans because of their experience in defense and national security. In 2016, veterans represented a large share of employees in several foreign-policy agencies which have struggled to hire women: the Air Force (57 percent), the Army (50 percent), and the Navy (43 percent). By comparison, veterans represented slightly less than one-third of the entire federal workforce in the same year.
In addition to veterans’ preference, the use of a variety of Excepted Service Authorities (ESA) for hiring—which allow agencies to bypass the conventional competitive hiring process—risks excluding women from candidacy. ESAs apply to a number of specific jobs, including attorneys and intelligence positions, and can be granted by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), by executive order, or Congress in situations where hiring managers are concerned they will be unable to fill the position appropriately via competitive hiring and an open application process. However, by not advertising these jobs publicly, ESAs risk excluding women and minorities from candidate pools and reduce the likelihood that the government workforce will reflect the American population. Numerous studies have shown that people are more likely to hire or recruit candidates who look and act like them, in a phenomenon known as mirroring. Despite a lack of data, given the disproportionate number of men in positions of authority, and likely responsible for hiring, the risks to gender equality from this policy warrant further attention.
This is a particular concern in foreign-policy agencies dominated by men. In a 2015 OPM report on ESA usage, foreign-policy agencies represented more than half of the 12 agencies using ESAs the most. Among the foreign-policy agencies that have used ESAs the most, all but three have seen the percentage of women hired through ESAs decline since 2008, and those agencies hired notably fewer women than men through ESAs in 2018. In fact, over the past decade, women have represented 39 percent of ESA hires in foreign-policy agencies each year on average, and the share is trending downward. In the same period, women’s representation in ESA hiring into domestic agencies was 53 percent on average, and has increased by 5 percentage points since 2008. Further study is needed to better understand the divergence between foreign-policy and domestic agencies.
Achieving gender parity among foreign-policy staff will require hiring practices which encourage fair and open competition. It is critical that hiring managers ensure that a diverse spread of candidates, including women, is brought in to interview, remaining cautious of who is being unintentionally excluded from the competition. In addition, monitoring the usage of ESAs and associated reasons can help ensure that they are being used only where necessary, minimizing the risk of women being discriminated against and excluded through the process.
While veterans’ preference may enable the hiring of more men than women, it has been highly successful in its stated aim, which is to increase the representation of a marginalized community (able-bodied and disabled combat veterans) within the federal government workforce. Any intervention to increase the hiring of women should be seen as a complement to veterans’ preference and other hiring preferences for underrepresented groups, not as a replacement.
Advancement & Leadership: A Leaky Pipeline
In addition to the backsliding of women’s employment, all foreign-policy agencies suffer from diminishing women’s representation in leadership. Together, these dynamics contribute to a vicious cycle. Lacking role models, fewer women pursue their career ambitions in foreign policy, and those who do lose out on valuable networks and support for career progression because of what interviewees describe as a pervasive “boys’ club” culture.
Lonely at the Top—The Dearth of Women Leaders
The most severe gap between the representation of men and women across all the foreign-policy agencies is in top leadership. As of August 2019, women on average account for only one-third of foreign-policy agencies’ top leadership—within the Pentagon, this drops to just 17 percent in the Department of Defense and 9 percent in the military. Women make up a considerably smaller percentage of top leadership than they represent in overall staff in every foreign-policy agency (except the Peace Corps).
The dearth of women leaders leads to a lack of role models for women, which in turn discourages their career aspirations. Across focus groups, current and former employees emphasized how having women as role models can have a tremendous positive impact on more junior women. One focus-group participant described it best: “There's something extremely impactful about seeing the trailblazers, and the message that you get subliminally that you can do the same thing.” The positive impact of women in high-profile positions is greatest in agencies where women are chronically underrepresented, such as the Pentagon.
Several focus-group participants called it inspiring and motivating to see increasing numbers of women appointed to top defense and national-security positions during the Obama administration. They particularly noted how meaningful it had been to see that all but one of the regional under secretaries at the State Department under President Barack Obama were women and, conversely, how discouraging and worrisome it is now that balance has almost entirely flipped, with all but two of these positions filled by men under the Trump administration. In fact, within the State Department, which has achieved gender parity at the employment level, just 44 women have been appointed as ambassadors, even fewer than the number of vacant positions, and accounting for just 23 percent of the United States’ 189 ambassadorships. (This is based on an FP Analytics count of the State Department’s list of ambassadors, as of January 2019.)
This lack of women role models in leadership is both a cause and an effect of the narrowing pipeline of women moving up the career ladder. Women’s representation drops notably in levels 13 to 15 of the General Schedule compared with their representation in levels below 13. The General Schedule (GS) is the primary pay scale for federal government employees and is pegged to the employee’s career level. GS levels 13 to 15 are the most senior grades below the Senior Executive Service (SES) and act as a pipeline into those positions.
In all foreign-policy agencies but one (for which GS data is available for 2018), the representation of women drops significantly in GS levels 13 to 15 compared to below GS level 13, by an average of 15 percentage points. At GS levels 13 to 15, women are substantially outnumbered by men in 80 percent of foreign-policy agencies, and in two-thirds of foreign-policy agencies women account for a percentage lower than their proportion in overall employment.
The percentage of women falls further moving into SES, the leadership positions just below the top presidential appointees overseeing and coordinating civil-service activity. Among the eight foreign-policy agencies for which SES data is available, women’s representation among senior executives is consistently lower than their representation in GS levels 13 to 15 (except the Air Force), and they on average accounted for less than one-third of senior executives in 2018.
Women’s representation in management or supervisor positions mirrors that of top and senior leadership. As of 2018, women accounted for only 23 percent of supervisors among the military services overall and 37 percent among nonmilitary foreign-policy agencies. All but one agency (the Peace Corps) for which data is available had significantly fewer women than men as supervisors.
Women’s Share of GS Levels 1-12, GS Levels 13-15, and Senior Executive Service Positions as of 2018
Women encounter serious barriers to advancement as they reach higher professional classification levels—a pattern consistent across all foreign-policy agencies for which data is available, with the exception of the Air Force.
“Boys’ Club” Culture Inhibits Women’s Advancement
A prevailing “boys’ club” culture, which was reported consistently throughout focus groups, contributes to the leaky pipeline phenomenon. This culture creates a toxic atmosphere for women: Focus-group participants described being excluded from social occasions and informal work gatherings and passed over for work assignments. As a result, women may find themselves at a disadvantage, with limited access to networking and advancement opportunities or to demonstrating their suitability for increased responsibility.
Focus-group participants noted how male supervisors and managers often make strategic decisions or assign work at informal occasions such as lunches or happy hours, where women are not invited or welcomed. However, even in more formal office settings, focus-group participants described incidents where work was taken away from them, despite their having been hired specifically for that portfolio or assigned it by a previous manager.
In addition, multiple women expressed that they were not taken seriously, either by peers in their own teams or counterparts in different agencies. Focus-group participants described being bypassed by male colleagues who preferred to work with other men even when those men were not the designated point of contact. Several women also reported that they struggled to speak up and make themselves heard in meetings dominated by men, a problem which is particularly acute in the Pentagon, where the dual pressure of being a woman and a civilian can undermine their credibility in colleagues’ eyes and limit opportunities.
Eliminating the “boys’ club” culture requires raising awareness among men, particularly leaders who are men, of its existence and its negative impact on women, and encouraging them to examine their unconscious biases and increase their openness to women colleagues.
Women’s Share of Supervisors vs. Share of Overall Employment as of 2018
Women supervisors are underrepresented across foreign-policy agencies, with their share consistently lower than their share of overall employment.
Need for Mentors
Lack of access to mentors is another obstacle to women’s advancement in foreign-policy agencies. Women seeking mentors not only have few senior women to choose from, they can also be reticent in seeking mentorship from senior men and women, and may miss out on opportunities because of the “boys’ club” atmosphere, which often causes men to overlook the women under their supervision.
Mentors can play an important role in professional networking and providing recommendations in the job application and promotion process. As such, women without supportive mentors may find that they lose out to their peers who are men: A study by Sun Microsystems found that employees with mentors were promoted five times as often as their nonmentored peers, and mentored employees were five times more likely to receive raises.
Multiple focus-group participants articulated the need for a dedicated mentorship program for women to support career development. Mentors, regardless of gender, could be provided with training and guidance on how best to support women in the workplace, helping to ensure such a program is well designed, accessible, and sustained over time.
Higher Women’s Attrition
Women in foreign-policy agencies are not only more likely to resign than men, but do so more often than women in nonforeign-policy agencies. On average, women are 30 percent more likely than men to leave by resigning in military services and 28 percent more likely in nonmilitary agencies, based on the annual averages for the period from 2008 to 2018. In comparison, women in nonforeign-policy agencies are only 16 percent more likely than men to leave by resigning. While the prevailing glass ceiling may discourage women from pursuing ambitions in public-sector foreign policy, women in focus groups also mentioned other factors, such as struggles with work-life balance and sexual harassment, that push women out of the field.
Sexual Harassment Disrupts Working Environment for Women
Sexual harassment has long been a problem in foreign-policy agencies, though it has been historically and chronically underreported. Recently, however, women have begun to come forward with accounts detailing their experiences of receiving sexual propositions and explicit comments, and of being assaulted, at work. A high-profile example of this shift came in 2017 with the publication of the #MeTooNatSec letter, signed by 223 senior women in the foreign-policy space, which described an atmosphere where abuse and assault are still common.
Just as they do in the rest of the government, women in foreign-policy agencies face both cultural and institutional barriers to filing harassment complaints. Culturally, women are often discouraged from lodging formal complaints out of fear that they will be labeled as troublemakers or problems. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) estimates that 75 percent of people who receive harassment never even mention it to their supervisor, let alone take the next step of filing a claim. Within foreign-policy agencies, focus-group participants described witnessing known harassers be moved into different roles as a way of dealing with complaints instead of going through official channels. Many women have consequently lost confidence in the way their agencies respond to discriminatory behavior. In addition, women working in defense and national security reported feeling that they were expected to downplay or ignore instances of sexual harassment in order to serve their patriotic duty.
The processes for reporting harassment and other Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) violations are slow and expensive, and place undue pressure on victims. EEO complaints filed within the government are adjudicated by each agency’s own office of civil rights, which puts agencies in the position of defending themselves and their employees from accusations of impropriety. This system encourages biased decisions that protect the institutions’ reputation. In 2018, 53 complaints were filed across the government, of which zero were found to have been discrimination. Complainants must hire their own lawyers, and adjudication can take anywhere from a few weeks to four years—while the subject of the complaint continues to work in the same place, alongside or with authority over the person they have been harassing.
Harassment causes many women to leave their workplaces, as it reportedly makes them feel unwanted and unwelcome. A 2018 poll of women in the private sector found that almost half of women who experienced sexual harassment quit their jobs as a result, and a 2017 study reported that women who have been harassed are 6.5 times more likely to quit than women who have not. Women in our focus groups described a feeling of relief once they chose to leave foreign-policy agencies where harassment had been prevalent and move into jobs in domestic agencies or the private sector.
To combat sexual harassment, it is vital that foreign-policy agencies provide safe environments in which women are supported when they speak up. Adopting a new approach to EEO complaint adjudication—by making accommodations wherever possible such that victims of sexual harassment are not required to continue working alongside their harasser, bear the burden of the cost of the complaint, or wait months before a conclusion is reached—could help create that environment. Such an approach would demonstrate that agency leadership has zero tolerance for harassment of any kind and communicate to women that speaking up will not have a negative impact on their career prospects.
Work-Life Imbalance Leads to Burnout
Balancing work and personal responsibilities is a common concern for women in the workplace, but it is even more difficult in foreign-policy agencies. Women represent 60 percent of all caregivers for elderly relatives in the United States, and studies have shown that even when women are the primary earners in their households, they still take on the majority of chores and child care responsibilities. This pressure is intensified in foreign-policy jobs, many of which require employees to be available and on call 24 hours per day, work long hours in moments of crisis, and go on international trips or long-term assignments, often in regions suffering from chronic instability, health scares, or epidemics. These jobs require a level of flexibility and availability that many women struggle to offer, because of their personal responsibilities as daughters, mothers, and/or caregivers.
The government’s opaque and inadequate family-leave policies, combined in many cases with a rigid personnel system, make these tensions worse. The United States is the only country in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that does not offer any paid parental leave; government employees are expected to get by using the provisions offered in the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which offers just 12 weeks total of unpaid leave for parental or medical reasons. The FMLA also puts strict limits on when those weeks can be used: New parents can only go on parental leave in the first year after their child’s birth or adoption, and caregivers can only use medical leave in the case of acute emergency, rather than for long-term care. In addition, policies which are designed to provide greater day-to-day flexibility, such as telework, are not accessible to all employees in practice. Many foreign-policy positions require employees to use the classified system, which can only be accessed from within secure government buildings, and thus are incompatible with regular telework.
Without the necessary institutional support, women often find themselves in a Catch-22 situation: On the one hand, they hold themselves back from applying for jobs because they feel unable to commit to the necessary long hours and foreign travel; on the other, they contend they are passed over for advanced assignments because it is simply assumed that they cannot make those commitments, losing out to colleagues—usually men—with fewer personal responsibilities. This predicament can reduce morale among women and cause their departure.
There are multiple changes agencies could make to help their female employees keep a healthy work-life balance. They could make existing policies more flexible—for example, by allowing employees who use the classified system to telework when no or slow classified work is anticipated and designating an official point of contact in case of emergency. In addition, the government could retool and increase paid parental leave. Such policies could help women advance while also encouraging them to remain in their jobs.
Many women in focus groups observed agency leaders and managers could ease the burden by normalizing and actively modeling positive behaviors such as leaving on time every day to attend to child care and personal commitments. Once both men and women can see that maintaining a healthy work-life balance is not only acceptable but encouraged, they will likely be more confident in taking advantage of existing norms and policies.
The Her Power Index
Achieving gender equality across the foreign-policy apparatus requires actions and initiatives by individual agencies and a solid commitment from their leadership. Making the problem visible is an important first step. To this end, FP Analytics constructed the Her Power Index, based on data retrieved from the FedScope database, to measure the status quo of gender disparity within these agencies and their progress over the past decade.
The index encompasses four dimensions where FP Analytics’ data analysis and focus groups found major gender gaps: employment, measuring gender parity in the overall staff and in new hires; advancement, measuring gender parity along the pipeline to leadership; leadership, measuring gender parity in management and senior positions; and retention, measuring gender parity in length of services and attrition (more details in the Methodology Note). On a scale from zero to 10, the index scores 15 foreign-policy entities that have sufficient data.
The 2019 Her Power Index reveals notable divergence among agencies of different types. Development, diplomatic, and economic agencies are in the lead. In particular, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) stands out with a significant lead—followed by the Department of State and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—with near gender parity across the four dimensions and continuous improvement in most areas. Not surprisingly, the military services lag behind dramatically. The Coast Guard scored the lowest, having stagnated or even regressed on gender parity in employment and leadership over time.
Nowhere are women enjoying full equality across all four dimensions. Even at USAID, the best performer, women are significantly underrepresented among the top leadership, and there is a notable narrowing pipeline of women moving into GS levels 13 to 15. Greater gender equality will require constant awareness and monitoring by agencies, which this index is intended to facilitate.
Jump to a foreign-policy agency:
- U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)
- Department of State
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
- Export-Import Bank of the United States (EXIM)
- U.S. Department of Agriculture, Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS)
- U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC)
- Department of Commerce (foreign-policy agencies only)
- Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC)
- Department of Homeland Security (DHS) (national-security agencies only)
- Department of Defense (DoD)
- U.S. Trade Representative (USTR)
- Department of the Navy
- Department of the Army
- Department of the Air Force
- Coast Guard
U.S. Agency for International Development
A high performer across all four index dimensions, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has also demonstrated significant progress over the past decade, giving it the highest score by a full point compared to the second-best agency.
Women represent slightly more than half of all employees, a balance which has remained steady over the past decade. However, caution is needed, as women’s representation among new hires fell by 5.4 percentage points in 2018 compared to the previous 10-year average, below parity level.
Women have relatively strong opportunities to advance at USAID, with nearly 1.5 women for every man in GS levels 13-15. While the proportion of women shrinks moving from GS levels 1-12 to GS levels 13-15, this gap has halved since 2008.
Women and men are now almost equally represented among supervisors; women’s representation has increased by 8.5 percentage points since 2008. USAID also has one of the highest proportions of women in top leadership, at 43%.
USAID scores the highest on retention: In 2018, women who departed had served 2 years longer than male colleagues on average. The agency has also achieved the second-largest im-provement in the attrition rate of women since 2008. In 2018, women were 20% less likely than men to depart by resigning.
Department of State
A high performer in employment and retention, the Department of State has also made significant progress advancing women to senior positions.
Women slightly outnumbered men in overall employment in 2018, and their share has stayed just above the parity level since 2008. However, women made up only 43% of new hires in 2018, a concerning decrease of 5 percentage points from the previous 10-year average.
The State Department has made significant progress on gender parity in senior GS levels since 2008, and women accounted for 48% of positions in GS levels 13-15 as of 2018. Women’s representation at those levels remains one-quarter lower than in GS levels 1-12, despite significant improvement since 2008.
Women represented nearly half of the State Department’s supervisors as of 2018, following major improvement over the past decade. However, the gender gap remains dramatic at the top: Twice as many men as women hold top leadership positions.
The State Department scored the second-highest in the index on retention in 2018. Women stayed slightly longer than men before leaving, and the women’s attrition rate dropped to below the men’s rate, a significant improvement from the previous 10-year average.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Despite leading in women’s employment, advancement, and leadership, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) overall score is brought down by its poor retention rate among women and failure to improve retention over time.
The CDC scores the highest in the index on employment: It has the highest proportion of women in both overall employment and new hires (64%), which have also steadily increased since 2008. In fact, the share of women has grown by 4 percentage points, the greatest increase in the index.
The CDC also scores the highest on advancement, mainly due to its high percentage of women in positions at GS levels 13-15 and continuous improvement over time. However, like other agencies, a disparity still exists between low and high GS levels, despite a slight improvement since 2008.
The CDC is the only agency where women outnumber men in top leadership. However, women made up 46% of supervisors as of 2018, significantly lower than their share in overall employment. This underrepresentation has persisted, with no sign of improvement since 2008.
The CDC is one of the few agencies where women leave sooner than men do. The gap between women’s and men’s attrition rates has steadily expanded over the last decade. The CDC had the largest gap in the index in this category in 2018, when women were 45% more likely than men to leave by resigning.
Export-Import Bank of the United States
The Export-Import Bank of the United States (EXIM) scores high on gender parity in overall employment and leadership. However, a dramatic gender disparity between junior and senior GS levels brings down the agency’s score.
Women’s representation in overall employment has stayed above 50% since 2008. However, EXIM’s relatively consistent tendency to hire men over women has negatively affected its gender makeup over time.
While there are 3 times as many women as men in GS levels 1-12, a serious barrier prevents them from advancing to higher levels: The decrease in women’s representation moving from GS levels 1-12 up to GS levels 13-15 is the worst in the index. The percentage of women in GS levels 13-15 was near parity as of 2018.
As of 2018, 44% of top leadership were women—the second-highest share in the index, behind the CDC. At lower levels, women made up nearly half of EXIM's supervisors (46%), after increasing by 11 percentage points since 2008.
Women generally tend to stay longer than men, although the gap between women’s and men’s length of service before departure has narrowed from 2.8 to 0.5 years since 2008. Women were slightly more likely than men to leave by resigning in 2018.
U.S. Department of Agriculture, Foreign Agricultural Service
The Foreign Agricultural Service’s (FAS’) high scores in employment and advancement are dragged down by its poor performance in leadership.
As of 2018, women made up 54% of all employees—one of the highest proportions in the index—and that share has trended upward slightly over the past decade, thanks in part to relatively consistent gender parity among new hires as of late.
The FAS scores highest in the index on advancement: Women’s representation in GS levels 13-15 reflected their share in overall employment as of 2018. Though a gap remains between women’s share in GS levels 13-15 and in GS levels 1-12, it was one of the smallest gaps in the index and has shrunk significantly since 2008.
Just 1 out of the agency’s 7 top leaders is a woman, one of the lowest shares in the index. Despite slight improvement since 2008, just 42% of supervisors were women in 2018, a share which failed to reflect their representation in the agency overall.
The FAS was one of the few agencies in the index where the length of service before departure was shorter among women than among men in 2018, and it has not made significant improvement since 2008. However, it has managed to reduce women’s attrition rate over time, and in 2018, a smaller portion of women who left did so by resigning than men.
U.S. International Trade Commission
Following clear progress over the course of the past decade, the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) is nearing gender parity in overall employment, senior GS levels, and leadership.
Women’s representation in overall employment has steadily increased since 2008 and hit the parity level in 2018. However, women’s share of new hires dropped by 12 percentage points in 2018 from the previous 10-year average.
Women’s representation in GS levels 13-15 has increased by 8 percentage points since 2008—the second-biggest gain in the index, behind the CDC. As of 2018, women accounted for 46% of positions in levels GS 13-15. However, a narrowing pipeline of women moving up career levels persists.
The USITC was nearing gender parity in leadership as of 2018: Two out of its 5 top leaders were women. Women also made up 48% of the agency’s supervisors, following a decade of steady increases from their share of less than one-third in 2008.
The USITC has made limited progress in retaining the women it employs over the past decade. In 2018, women and men left the agency after the same number of years of service on average, but women were slightly more likely than men to resign.
Department of Commerce (foreign-policy agencies only)
The agencies as a whole suffer from a dearth of female employees and leaders. Despite this, high female retention helps to bring up the overall score.
As of 2018, women accounted for 32% of employees in GS levels 13-15, notably lower than their share in overall employment. The agencies’ share of women dropped by nearly 10 percentage points moving from GS levels 1-12 to GS 13-15 as of 2018.
Women accounted for just one-third of supervisors as of 2018, though that represented an increase of nearly 4 percentage points since 2008. Their share is even smaller in top leadership—as of 2018, only 1 in 4 top leaders was a woman.
The agencies overall score high on retention and have made notable progress since 2008. Women stayed 3 years longer than male peers before leaving on average and were 10% less likely to resign in 2018.
Overseas Private Investment Corporation
The status of women at the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) is deteriorating significantly. Though it was once a high performer on gender equality in employment and leadership, it is now in the middle of the pack.
Though OPIC previously achieved gender parity among its employees, its proportion of women has declined by 4 percentage points since 2008, partially because of a persistent gender disparity among new hires. Twice as many men as women were hired in 2018, a ratio notably worse than the previous 10-year average.
OPIC has experienced the largest drop in the percentage of women in GS levels 13-15 since 2008 among the agencies in the index. There are now 1.5 times as many men as women in the highest GS levels. As of 2018, it also demonstrated the most dramatic narrowing of the career pipeline for women moving from GS levels 1-12 to GS levels 13-15.
OPIC has largely maintained gender parity among supervisors, with little change over the past decade. However, its leadership score is pulled down by the fact that there are three times as many men as women in the agency’s top leadership.
Women tend to stay in the agency longer than men. In 2018, women who left OPIC had served the agency one-third longer on average than men who did. In the same year, women were one-third less likely to leave by resigning than men, a significant improvement from the previous 10-year average.
Department of Homeland Security (national-security agencies only)
The agencies as a whole have among the lowest representation of women in employment and leadership, but have managed to improve their retention over time.
Women represented only 29% of all employees as of 2018, the second-lowest share in the index. Their representation has fallen by 4 percentage points since 2008, partly due to a persistent gender disparity in new hires.
Women’s share in GS levels 13-15 was largely equal to their share in overall employment as of 2018. These agencies as a whole were the only ones in the index where women’s representation in GS levels 13-15 was slightly higher than in GS levels 1-12. However, the anomaly could have been caused by the fact that two-thirds of all employees are in GS levels 13-15, whereas in other agencies most employees are in GS levels 1-12.
Women accounted for just 8% of top leadership as of 2018—the third-lowest level in the index, following the Army and the Air Force. Women’s representation among supervisors was also among the lowest—only 1 out of 4 was a woman, despite some moderate progress since 2008.
The agencies overall made remarkable progress on retention: The length of service before departure increased by 7 years among women while decreasing by 2 years among men over the 2008-2018 period, and women stayed 4.5 years longer as of 2018. However, the attrition rate remains higher among women.
Department of Defense
Although the Department of Defense (DoD) employs men and women at almost equal levels, its sharply narrowing channel of women into leadership positions and its failure to retain female employees bring its score down.
Women have consistently slightly outnumbered men in the DoD’s new hires over the past decade. As of 2018, the agency almost achieved gender parity in overall employment, despite a dip of 5 percentage points in the proportion of women since 2008.
Despite slight improvements in women’s advancement since 2008, women accounted for less than 40% of employees in GS levels 13-15 as of 2018, one-quarter lower than their share in GS levels 1-12.
Women are significantly underrepresented in the upper echelons of the DoD. As of 2018, they accounted for just 17% of top leadership and only one-third of supervisors, a backslide of 2 percentage points since 2008.
U.S. Trade Representative
A steep decline in women’s employment overall, combined with the consistently small share of women among supervisors and top leadership, makes the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) the lowest-scoring nonmilitary agency.
The USTR demonstrated the worst backslide in the index: Women’s share of total employment has dropped by 7 percentage points since 2008, to 45%. This downward trend may not reverse any time soon, given that in 2018 just one-third of new hires were women.
As of 2018, women accounted for less than one-fifth of the USTR’s top leadership. In lower levels, women made up less than 30% of its supervisors, and only the military services and the DHS performed worse on this metric.
The USTR performs relatively well on retaining the women it employs. Women generally tend to serve more years than men before leaving and are less likely than men to leave by resigning.
Department of the Navy
Dramatic underrepresentation of women in employment and leadership is offset by a relatively healthy level of retention among women. Though its score is low, the Navy is still the best-performing military service.
As of 2018, only 27% of the Navy’s employees were women—the lowest level in the index. That share has steadily declined, by 3 percentage points, since 2008, partly due to a persistent gender disparity in new hires. In 2018, women accounted for less than one-third of new hires, the second-lowest share in the index.
Women’s representation in GS levels 13-15 is one of the lowest in the index, mirroring their representation in overall employment. Although advancement has improved notably since 2008, the share of women in GS levels 13-15 still remained one-quarter lower than their share in GS levels 1-12.
Women made up just 9% of top leadership as of 2018, one of the lowest in the index. Among supervisors, only 23% were women, notably lower than their representation in overall employment, and that share has declined by 2 percentage points since 2008.
The Navy has made progress on retention. As of 2018, women served slightly longer than men before leaving, whereas they served 4 years shorter one decade ago. Although women’s attrition rates remain higher than men’s, the gap has gradually narrowed.
Department of the Army
The Army is one of the most difficult environments for women to advance among the agencies in the index and, relevantly, has the lowest percentage of women in top leadership.
The Army has the best overall proportion of women in employment among the military services, but women still account for only one-third of the staff as of 2018. The gender imbalance is unlikely to improve anytime soon, because men are consistently chosen over women as new hires. In 2018, only 1 in every 3 new hires was a woman.
The Army has slightly improved at promoting women since 2008: As of 2018, women worked in just under one-third of the jobs in GS levels 13-15. However, that proportion is only two-thirds the percentage of women in GS levels 1-12, leaving the agency with one of the largest gender disparities between high and low GS levels.
Women account for just one-quarter of the Army’s supervisors. This is compounded by the biggest gender gap in top leadership in the index: Just 6% of top leaders in the Army are women.
The length of service of women who left the Army increased by 3 years on average between 2008 and 2018, while it barely changed for men. However, the attrition rate among women remains higher, despite a notable improvement since 2008; in 2018, women leaving the Army were 25% more likely to resign than men.
Department of the Air Force
The Air Force is among the index’s worst performers on advancement and leadership, but is saved from the bottom spot by a recently improved attrition rate.
Women account for less than 30% of Air Force employees, and the share has dropped by 3 percentage points since 2008. Persistent gender imbalance in new hires contributes to the back-sliding. In 2018, women represented one-third of new hires, despite a slight improvement compared to the previous 10-year average.
The Air Force has the lowest women’s representation in GS levels 13-15 in the index, with no significant improvement over time. In 2018, women made up less than one-quarter of employees in GS levels 13-15, compared with more than one-third in GS levels 1-12, indicating a severe advancement problem.
The agency has the worst leadership score in the index: Just one-fifth of the Air Force’s supervisors were women as of 2018, a figure which has dropped by 2 percentage points since 2008. In addition, just 8% of top leaders are women.
A high retention score brings the Air Force up out of last place. Women have been catching up with men on the length of their service, and women who left in 2018 had served slightly longer than men. As of 2018, they were still 15% more likely to leave by resigning than men, but this gap is closing because of a faster increase in the attrition rate among men over the past decade.
Like the other military services, the Coast Guard suffers from a severe underrepresentation of women in overall employment and leadership. However, a comparatively high attrition rate makes it the worst performer in the 2019 index.
As of 2018, less than 30% of the Coast Guard’s employees were women, a share which has dropped by almost 5 percentage points since 2008. In addition, women make up a persistently small share of new hires. In 2018, only 29% of the Coast Guard’s new hires were women—the lowest percentage in the index.
Women accounted for 28% of employees in GS levels 13-15 in 2018, one-quarter lower than their representation in GS levels 1-12. Although the disparity has shrunk significantly since 2008, the shift was mostly due to a major decrease in the share of women in the lower GS levels, while their share in the higher GS levels increased slightly.
Women accounted for less than one-quarter of the Coast Guard’s supervisors as of 2018, demonstrating no gains since 2008. They make up an even smaller percentage, only 14%, of top leadership.
Women’s length of service before departure increased by 7.2 years in the past decade, nearly tripling the increase for men. In 2018, women who left had on average served 3 years longer than men who left. However, the attrition rate remains higher among women—in 2018, departing female employees were 39% more likely than men to resign.
While U.S. agencies have had a legacy of gender inequality, its causes and its magnitude have remained unclear. Now, equipped with data and first-hand insights, agencies have an opportunity to act. In the face of unprecedented complexity, uncertainty, and ambiguity in global affairs, it is essential that the U.S. foreign-policy apparatus is equipped with the best and brightest. Failing to ensure equal opportunity severely undermines that objective.
Achieving gender equality throughout the United States’ foreign-policy agencies will require a significant cultural shift to create a more inclusive workplace for women and tackle harassment and discrimination head-on. A strong and sustained commitment from the top leadership will be indispensable to this shift. Secretaries are well positioned to make gender equality a priority in the workplace early in their tenure, creating a set of common values on gender equality and hiring senior leaders who will act on those common values and goals.
While cultural change could take time, practical steps must be taken immediately to ensure open and competitive hiring practices, strengthen support for a healthy work-life balance, and invest in women’s professional development. These steps are necessary to further realize women’s potential to contribute to U.S. foreign policy. The time to act is now.
I. Research Goal: The Her Power Index (HPI) aims to measure the extent of gender parity at foreign-policy departments and agencies in the U.S. federal government and the progress they made from 2008 to 2018. On a scale from zero to 10, the index scores 15 key agencies which have sufficient data, including cabinet departments, independent agencies, and foreign-policy agencies within domestic-policy cabinet departments.
II. Four Pillars: The index consists of four pillars that represent the areas where FP Analytics’ data analysis and focus groups identified major gender gaps: employment, advancement, leadership, and retention. The pillars are constructed from the indicators shown in Table 1. Each indicator (with the exception of “top leadership,” which suffers from a lack of data, see below) is built on:
- A static metric that captures the status quo as of 2018. Because the index is focused on gender gaps rather than levels of women’s representation, the metric is expressed as the ratio of women to men (“F/M ratio”). The only exception is indicator B2, “Percent difference between GS levels 13-15 and GS levels 1-12,” which measures the narrowing pipeline of women moving from lower career levels to higher levels.
- A dynamic metric that measures the change in the static metric value over the period from 2008 to 2018.
Unless otherwise noted, data was retrieved from FedScope, which is administered by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), between February and August 2019.
Table 1. Pillars and Indicators
III. Construction of Her Power Index: Building on the four pillars above, the HPI was constructed by following the steps below:
Step 1: Scaled department/agency values using Min-Max methodology
The Min-Max methodology is commonly used in index construction to transform indicators expressed in different units into a common scale while preserving relative distance between values.
This method was used to normalize the dynamic metrics to a scale from zero to 10. For any given metric, the minimum and maximum values were used as benchmarks and defined as the lowest score (zero) and the highest score (10), respectively. The greater the increase achieved in the metric value over the past decade, the higher an entity’s score, with the exception of the dynamic metric for attrition. For attrition, the lower the increases, the higher an entity’s score.
The method was adjusted slightly for the static metrics, so as not to reward agencies where women outnumber men or are overrepresented. Instead of maximum values, we used 1.0 as the high-end benchmark for F/M ratios (the parity level) and zero as the high-end benchmark for the percent difference between GS levels 13-15 and GS levels 1-12 (indicating the representation of women in higher positions is equal to their representation in lower positions). As a result, entities that have metric values equal to or greater than the benchmarks all score 10; however, for the static metric for attrition, entities with metric values equal to or smaller than the benchmarks score 10.
Step 2: Aggregated indicators into HPI
With the normalized metric values, the overall HPI was based on the weights illustrated below (Table 2). The four pillars were equally weighted. For each indicator within the pillars, the weight given to static metrics doubled the weight given to dynamic metrics, because while it is meaningful to integrate trends over time (i.e. degree of progress or regression) in the index, it is FP Analytics’ contention that an agency’s current status on gender equality matters more. Only by confronting the state of affairs right now can U.S. agencies make the improvements necessary to achieve gender equality.
Table 2. Weight Distribution among Index Components
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