Toughest Federal Science Jobs Elude Women

WASHINGTON When top federal jobs are handed out in Washington, few plums the most desirable and highest-profile positions go to women. And a new survey shows that they don't get the prunes the less visible but most demanding jobs either. And this goes for science jobs, as well as other kinds of jobs. Indeed, last year a private think-tank here, the Council for Excellence in Government, identified 100 prune jobs throughout the government. This year the council has narrowed its focus to select t

Oct 15, 1990
Marcia Clemmitt

WASHINGTON When top federal jobs are handed out in Washington, few plums the most desirable and highest-profile positions go to women. And a new survey shows that they don't get the prunes the less visible but most demanding jobs either. And this goes for science jobs, as well as other kinds of jobs.

Indeed, last year a private think-tank here, the Council for Excellence in Government, identified 100 prune jobs throughout the government. This year the council has narrowed its focus to select the most demanding of these posts in science and technology.

There are 66 such jobs, according to the council, and the staffing of these posts, says John Trattner, council vice president, has major implications for the nation's scientific and technical enterprise. The list includes such pressure-cooker positions as the top job at NASA, director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and the EPA's assistant administrator for pesticides and toxic substances.

Although these jobs may be less glamorous and powerful than a Cabinet position, they're vital to the efficient operation of the federal government. And they're also highly prized. Even so, the Bush administration, like its predecessors, apparently believes that men are more deserving than women. Only five jobs on the list of 66 about 7.5 percent are currently held by women. (The anticipated arrival of Cleveland cardiologist Bernadine Healy, expected to be nominated to another prune post of director of the National Institutes of Health, would make the grand total six women.)

That 7.5 percent showing trails even the low 10 percent rate of top-level federal jobs in all fields held by women, according to Constance Newman, director of the Office of Personnel Management.

Many women science executives say they must overcome traditional stereotypes attached more often to professional women: that they can't possibly have or even want to acquire necessary experience, that they aren't willing to work the long hours that some top-level jobs require, and that their presence may antagonize contacts in technical fields who expect to do business with a man. All those elements, they say, come together to form a glass ceiling that women science administrators have found hard to crack.

Women at NSF, as well as other government offices and agencies, need the experience of sitting on committees to be thought of for higher-level jobs, according to Mary Clutter, NSF's assistant director for biological, behavioral, and social agencies. At NSF, NAS, NRC there are always lots of studies for policy decisions, Clutter says. But very few women have sat on those committees, because most of the people making suggestions [for such appointments] think off the tops of their heads. Men never think about women in that connection. They think about Joe and Bill.

In congressional offices, and in some parts of the executive branch, some staffers say that efforts at equality are skewed by a feeling that lobbyists and outside contractors may look down on women in scientific and technical fields. Few women say they meet with discrimination within their own organizations, but many point to what one aide terms the little lady syndrome outsiders' assumption that female staff members are support personnel or that they won't be knowledgeable about the most complex scientific and political issues.

And then there's the assumption, stemming from what is perceived as their divided attention as wives and mothers, that these women can't be counted on in difficult times. And even though some federal departments offer part-time opportunities and temporary leaves to have children, that kind of flexibility ends when you reach the management level, as one woman manager says.

Many women point out that the government's track record for placing women in technical executive positions is no worse and probably somewhat better than that of the private sector. In fact, their presence in top government jobs is more than twice as high at 10 percent than what it is in the private sector at slightly less than 5 percent, according to a recent survey by the executive recruiting firm Korn Ferry.

Janice Obuchowski, a communications lawyer whose post as assistant secretary of commerce for communications and information qualifies her job as a prune position, calls the federal government a potential strong suit for women because of its constant need for good people. Only the very short-sighted would not seek out and promote capable women here [in the federal government], she says. Except for congressional offices and committees and a few offices in the executive branch, all federal agencies must abide by the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits job discrimination by gender. The law also requires agencies to operate special offices for equal opportunity programs, and submit human resource plans each year.

Following is a list of the 66 toughest government positions in science, selected by the Council for Excellence in Government, and an indication, by gender, of who holds them.

Executive Office of the President: 12 slots; 0 held by women

Department of Agriculture: 1 slot; 0 held by women

Department of Commerce: 4 slots; 1 held by a woman

Department of Defense and the Armed Services: 8 slots; 0 held by women

Department of Education: 1 slot; 0 held by women

Department of Energy: 3 slots; 0 held by women Department of Health and Human Services: 5 slots; 1 held by a woman*

Department of Housing and Urban Development: 1 slot; 0 held by women

Department of the Interior: 2 slots; 0 held by women

Department of Labor: 2 slots; 1 held by a woman

Department of State: 3 slots; 0 held by women

Department of Transportation: 3 slots; 0 held by women

Independent Agencies: 14 slots; 2 held by women

Congress: 8 slots; 0 held by women

*A second slot would be filled if, as expected, Bernadine Healy is appointed director of the National Institute of Health.

But laws alone can't eliminate certain other problems for top women scientists on the job. As far as I know, says Cherri Langenfeld, a civil engineer who became director of DOE's Office of Technology Analysis after spending several years in industry, I've never been excluded from any meeting and never had my work taken less seriously because I'm a woman. But there are more jokes both racist and sexist in the halls here. [They are] things that people at companies would be scared to death to say because of federal Equal Employment Opportunity regulations.

It's not really conscious discrimination, says Katherine Bick, a neurologist and former NIH deputy director for extramural research who is now employed in private industry. A woman's just not the first person who comes to mind [when a position is filled].

Unless there's been a real effort on the part of the woman to show her interest in moving upward, no one will think of her when the job comes up, says Bick, who is now scientific liaison in Washington for a multicenter clinical drug trial being sponsored by a consortium of Italian pharmaceutical companies. One thing I learned early in my career is that, if you're ambitious to do something, make sure that's not a fact only you and your mother know.

Sometimes, even those with obvious talent and solid credentials and drive need a little boost. The people who call the shots must be reminded that women can strengthen their team, says Betty White, manager of minority university programs for NASA and formerly federal women's program manager for the agency. A supervisor's first priority is the technical mission, she says. Many institutional programs have been put in place to ensure that women are well-represented on key projects, and people are willing to accept change, but we have to keep reminding them. We have to sell [supervisors] on institutional priorities like promoting women by showing them how it will help the mission.

At many federal agencies, women find it hard to obtain the experience they need. This situation results in a catch-22, in which women and men, as well, are denied promotions because they don't have the necessary experience. Without such experience, says Kristin Hessenius, deputy director of the Aerodynamics Division at NASA, a woman's name doesn't appear on that unwritten list that, once you get on it, makes opportunities abound.

Describing her climb up through the ranks at NASA that has made her, at 32, one of only a handful women at her high level of management there, Hessenius says, I enjoyed my technical work [in computational fluid dynamics], but I really wanted to see where it was going. I made known my interest by asking lots of questions and being interested beyond my own area.

Not content to let events unfold, Hessenius worked hard to make her own breaks. People usually go to lunch with the people they sit next to, she notes. But I always wanted to meet people from other labs. People I interfaced with gave me ideas of where I might be of use outside my own research group. I got on some ad hoc committees. Once you've stepped outside your area, people see you, know what you can do, they think of you. Pretty soon you're on the list.

Sometimes bosses help women get the kind of wide-ranging experience they need to advance. Mary Clutter, a 15-year veteran at the National Science Foundation, served two years as senior science adviser to former Director Erich Bloch. The experience, she says, was invaluable. He took me everywhere Congress, the White House, Wall Street, international meetings, she recalls. And he relied on me to know women to ask to sit on committees and study groups. But some women just didn't have the kinds of experiences they needed to feel comfortable in those situations.

Clutter has vowed to change that situation in her present job as NSF's assistant director for biological, behavioral, and social sciences. I've made a directive for my division: We will no longer support any meeting, conference, anything, unless there are women speakers, she says. It's a matter of including women every damned time.

Prune-job holder Janet Norwood, a statistician whose tenure as commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics spans the Carter, Reagan, and Bush administrations, also cites the need for women to gain confidence. In many cases, women and minorities have had no opportunity to develop self-confidence in the public arena, she says. Women in particular need the experience of presenting more papers at professional meetings. Self-confidence is something that can be learned.

It also can be shaken. When you get to certain job levels, says Angienetta Johnson, an engineer in NASA's Operations Engineering Management, you see the invisible ceiling. You get some nice `attaboys,' but no real advancement.

I heard, `The system's not ready for a black female manager.' Right about then I started to question my own ability. This is about the time I decided that the only way to progress is to find people who are willing to support you. You have to build the skills and make the contacts. People say, `Make your own opportunities.' You can't do that, but you can put yourself in the position to take the opportunities that come up.

Ann Merwarth, an aerospace engineer and project manager for Hubble Ground Systems and Operations at Goddard Space Flight Center, calls broad-based headquarters policy jobs the scourge of the earth. But she acknowledges that her tour of duty at NASA headquarters showed me the difficulties you face when you're trying to juggle it all.

Despite the obstacles they have faced, many women in top government jobs say that they appreciate the authority that comes with their positions. As Obuchowski puts it, It's great to have the power to say, `This is important, I'm going to put this on the agenda.'

But most women in science still have a long way to go before they can enjoy that authority. It was 1971 when I got involved in this business of thinking women needed to move forward, says NSF's Clutter. If I thought that in 1990 things would've changed this little well, it does seem to be taking an inordinately long time.