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Not Just Silicon Valley: Feds Have a Gender Tech Gap, Too

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After the disastrous launch of HealthCare.gov last year, one of the more common reform-minded refrains trumpeted around Washington was that, especially in this digital age, the government needed to operate more like a sleek, Silicon Valley startup.

The feds appear to have taken that suggestion to heart.

Throughout the Obama administration, the White House has famously poached from Google to fill high-ranking tech positions. And last month, the administration announced federal Chief Technology Officer Todd Park would step down from his White House post and help the government continue to recruit top techies directly from Silicon Valley.

But at least in one respect, the federal government already looks like quite a bit like a Silicon Valley startup: in the diversity of its technology workforce.

How Bad is the Gender Tech Gap in Government?

According to publicly released data this summer, women on average make up only about 30 percent of all employees in the big four Silicon Valley companies -- Facebook, Apple, Google and Twitter.

For IT-related jobs specifically, that gap widens practically to a chasm, with women accounting for an average of just 16 percent of those roles, according to a Bloomberg analysis of public data.

The makeup of the federal IT workforce hasn’t quite reached the lopsided levels found in Santa Clara. All told, women make up about 44 percent of the federal workforce, according to the Office of Personnel Management.  

But the percentage of women in IT jobs governmentwide hovers at only about 30 percent, according to an analysis of OPM data by CEB, a consulting firm based in Arlington, Virginia.

Better than the “brogrammers” out west? Definitely. But the best Uncle Sam can do?

Women who work in the tech space in Washington aren’t exactly shocked that government -- which has struggled to recruit and hire technologists of all stripes -- hasn’t quite cracked the code of hiring a diverse tech workforce.

"Those numbers certainly aren't surprising, because we can't be naive and think that the disparities that we see in Silicon Valley exist in one geographic region instead of applying more broadly to an entire industry and skill set,” says Laurenellen McCann, a civic innovation fellow at the New America Foundation.

McCann is a member of Tech LadyMafia, a networking group for women in technology, which includes a strong D.C. membership.

Not Just IT -- Gap Persists in Other Fields

It’s also true in government that IT positions aren’t the only tech field where women make up a shrinking share of the workforce.  

At NASA, nearly 80 percent of aerospace engineers are men and women make up less than one-third of the agency’s computer engineers and general engineers, according to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission data.

At the Federal Communications Commission, women actually outnumber men in the agency’s overall workforce -- about 53 percent to 47 percent. But in one of the major occupational categories at the agency--electronics engineering--men vastly outnumber women -- 88 percent to about 12 percent.

Solutions to the dearth of women in tech across both government and the private sector have focused on getting more women and girls interested in technology fields, priming the educational pipeline with more qualified female candidates.

For example, women now account for just 18 percent of computer science graduates, though they comprise nearly 60 percent of all U.S. college graduates, according to federal statistics.

That’s no doubt one of the reasons behind the findings of a February 2014 report by the National Science Board reporting women and minorities are still broadly underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math fields.

"Getting more women to self-select into science, technology, engineering or mathematics-type fields -- the types of fields that would lend themselves toward an IT career -- that really needs to be a level of focus throughout our country,” says Lon Zanetta, a senior executive adviser at CEB and former chief information officer for the Federal Reserve system.

Experts: Focus on Management

But what can the government, as an employer, not only a policymaker, do to get its house in order now -- not just when the youngest crop of newly empowered female coders graduate from college?

The experts Nextgov spoke with pointed to the important nexus between management and hiring. Governmentwide, there are far more male federal managers than female. That holds true in the field of IT management, where some 70 percent of IT employees at the very highest levels of the federal pay scale are men.

When Zanetta joined the Fed in the early 2000s, about a quarter of the agency's overall leaders were women, he says. By the time he retired last year, it had grown to about 50 percent -- and included Zanetta’s successor in the CIO post.

"One of the main things we had to do was provide some support to high-potential women to get them to really compete for those leadership positions," he says. "It's often the case that men would be more inclined to throw their hat in the ring for a leadership position, even if they felt like they weren't completely qualified.”

USAJobs, the ‘Robot Sentinel’ Blocking Diversity?

That support is important because managers -- who tend to be white men, in government -- generally tend to hire from their networks -- other white men.

"It's really easy to find people that look like you to hire, and it's generally who you associate with,” says Merici Vinton, who was responsible for hiring and recruiting the original digital team at the brand-new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in 2011 and later, successfully deploying ConsumerFinance.gov.

Vinton, who’s now with IDEO, a design consulting firm in London, told Nextgov the element of diversity of all kinds wasn’t tacked onto CFPB’s hiring process but baked in from the beginning.

The reason you might not normally see those types of people in government tech jobs is because of the archaic, obtuse federal hiring process, Laurenellen McCann argues. "When I think about hiring a great tech team, I think about hiring people of color and people from socioeconomic backgrounds that you normally don't see at senior levels in government,” she says.

The feds made their best shot at bringing federal hiring into the Google era when it relaunched the USAJobs career portal in 2011 -- which also teetered on the edge of a HealthCare.gov-like death spiral upon rollout.

Even after the site has long since stabilized, OPM recognizes it’s far from an ideal solution. Earlier this summer, OPM Director Katherine Archuleta, who said she constantly receives requests to make the jobs site easier to use, announced the agency would launch focus groups and other usability tests to improve the portal.

“What most folks forget or don't realize -- or maybe it's just not public knowledge -- USAJobs is like the robot sentinel between you as a human being applying to work for the government and the government even knowing that you exist,” McCann says. “That's not a great way to be considerate about diversity and inclusivity for any job set, let alone for these particular fields that require attention and care in order to increase their diversity."

Why Washington Could Come Out Ahead

Still, advocates for a more diverse federal tech workforce see hopeful signs in a few recent personnel shifts at the very highest levels of government tech.

After U.S. CTO Todd Park announced he was decamping for California, the White House moved quickly in naming Megan Smith, a Google executive with the company’s cutting-edge research arm, to the open position.

"Yeah, she's a woman but she's also just a phenomenal leader, and so that is a great move,” Vinton says. “All these boxes that you would want to check when you're thinking about hiring for the U.S. CTO and the visibility she brings to the position is so stunning."

But even before he left the White House, Park earned plaudits for taking the CTO office he inherited -- with zero women in major policy roles -- and achieving near-gender parity there within about two years through such high-profile hires as Code for America’s Jennifer Pahlka and former Google and Twitter lawyer Nicole Wong.

While some reformers remain obsessed with government operating more like Silicon Valley, others suggest Sunnyvale may not always be the go-to option for civic-minded techies.

It sounds optimistic, but in the future, the government could actually have first dibs on top talent -- men and women alike, Vinton says.

"People in Silicon Valley focus on the snacks and the free food and the beer and the Ping Pong,” she says. “And actually my guess is, that's not going to be popular -- nobody's going to want that in five years. What you want is an organization you feel like you feel like you can make a difference in and you can grow in, and that has nothing to do with Ping Pong and nothing to do with T-shirts and free food.”

(Image via temiropix/Shutterstock.com)

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