- By Diane Frank, Judi Hasson, Paula Shaki Trimble
- Jul 31, 2000
Linda Massaro always thought she had to try harder than the men to succeed
in government. "You had to do a better job because you were going to be
watched," she said. But from where she sits now, as chief information officer
and director of information and resource management at the National Science
Foundation, Massaro, 53, is watching more women succeed.
"I think women have come a long way," she said. Women in the top echelon
of government still are underrepresented, but at gatherings of groups such
as the CIO Council, Massaro has noted that she sees a lot more women than
in the past.
Women in government information technology jobs are finding they are
climbing toward the top faster and in ways they never could in other fields.
The reasons are varied. For one, the rapid expansion of the high-tech work
force is creating opportunities for women.
"It is in our nation's best self- interest to take strong steps to nurture
the talents of women, minorities and persons with disabilities to fill the
demand for skilled workers in science and technology fields," said Rep.
Connie Morella (R-Md.).
Also, the federal government has an obligation to serve as a model workplace,
reflecting the diversity of the population and enforcing labor practices.
"Government has one advantage to private industry, which is that it
must be more socially conscious," said Ruzena Bajcsy, 67, director of NSF's
Computer and Information Sciences and Engineering Directorate. "It has always
been, including the military, a tremendous opportunity for the underprivileged."
At the same time, IT encompasses a wide range of job skills, beyond
pure math and science, so it is often a magnet for government workers who
are generalists. "In this field, the sky's the limit," said Linda Burek,
41, deputy CIO at the Justice Department. "You've got such a need out there
and inadequate resources that, if you are halfway decent, it doesn't matter
if you are blue or purple or 10 feet tall."
Massaro, trained as a mathematician and physicist, has ascended the
federal pyramid from her first job in the Navy to the senior executive level
at NSF. She has found it relatively easy to succeed — with a few exceptions.
At one job near the beginning of her career, she was told that a male
colleague would be promoted because he had a wife and children to support,
while she had a husband who could support her. "That was hard to take,"
The working environment for women has changed dramatically since then,
even though nothing approaching parity with men exists in federal IT.
Women make up about 22 percent of the government's Senior Executive
Service, up from 11 percent in 1990. In the work force at large, about
9 percent of all engineers are women, and 27 percent of computer programmers
are women, said Morella, chairwoman of the Commission on the Advancement
of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering and Technology.
This month, the commission released a report offering recommendations
on ways to expand the high-tech work force. The solutions, however, are
long-term, costly and require a change in attitude:
* Technology education must start sooner; women and minorities should
be targeted in high school.
* Science and technology scholarships must be available for college
* Private- and public-sector employers should be held accountable for
the career development of women, minorities and people with disabilities.
* The image of science and technology professions must be transformed
to feel inclusive.
Meantime, federal IT opportunities are increasing for women. Part of
the reason is that the requirements for success are different than in other
fields. Federal IT offices are not necessarily looking for people with scientific
or technical degrees. Instead, federal IT managers and people forming IT
policy often have more general business, financial or management backgrounds.
Sometimes, a lack of technical knowledge even helps at the management
or policy-making level. "I don't need a lot of technical knowledge. In fact,
sometimes it has helped [that I don't have that knowledge] because I can
approach it from a different angle," said Sally Katzen, counselor to the
director of the Office of Management and Budget, who has been involved in
the development of much of the IT policy at civilian agencies.
Indeed, because government no longer sees IT as an end in itself, it
is often not the nuts-and-bolts technical knowledge that is needed. "With
respect to Y2K and e-government...it's not as important to know how it works
as it is to know what it can do," Katzen said.
Another factor that has led to the success of women in IT is the flexibility
of education requirements for IT jobs. Unlike in scientific disciplines,
there are no strict requirements for advanced degrees in the IT field. "In
the sciences, you're going to have some significant hurdles because you've
got to have that scientific skill set," said Joan Steyaert, deputy associate
administrator for GSA's Office of Information Technology. "But in IT, I
think you can have a more diverse skill set."
It's not only women who say the IT revolution is changing the workplace.
"The government is the best place I have seen for advancement of women in
the workplace," said Commerce Department CIO Roger Baker. "There are just
more women in senior positions here. I don't see ceilings as much as some
level of apparent resistance."
But while resistance to hiring women in federal IT jobs is diminishing,
women still face obstacles to getting ahead. "It's so subtle that it's very
difficult to point a finger," said Valerie Wallick, 52, former deputy CIO
for the Navy who is now vice president for corporate development at Science
Applications International Corp. "But you eventually know it. You know you
are viewed as an anomaly."
Even today, women must take extra steps to prove their worth. Carla
von Bernewitz, 44 — who until February was the CIO at the Defense Logistics
Agency, where she was in charge of supplying $17 billion in goods and services
to Army, Navy and Air Force offices — believes women have to be better than
men to succeed at equivalent jobs.
"Women may have to handle themselves differently and be better prepared,"
said von Bernewitz, now the chief operating officer for information solutions
for Electronic Data Systems Corp.'s northeast region. "Women need to have
statistics and numbers roll off their fingertips and speak with credibility
and facts behind the numbers, know exactly what the dollar amount is or
what the ratio is. Women probably won't get the break of saying, "I'll get
back to you.'"
Gloria Parker, 49, who as CIO at the Department of Housing and Urban
Development is the highest-ranking female IT executive in government, agrees.
"Someone is always thinking, "Hmm. I wonder if she can cut it,'" she said.
"When a woman comes into a top position, she has to build the confidence
that people need to have. She comes in at the bottom in terms of people's
impression. Men, on the other hand, come in with a great impression, and
they have to fall down," said Parker, who spent 17 years as an IBM Corp.
executive before moving to HUD two years ago.
Patty Edfors, a former Justice Department official and now director
of government operations for Baltimore Technologies, a firm that specializes
in wireless security and public-key infrastructure solutions, concurs. "I
was the first female director in the Justice Department that was associated
with information technology. We were the new girls entering the old-boys
network and, believe me, you felt it," she said.
Making New Networks
SAIC's Wallick, who spent 18 months as senior adviser to Year 2000 chief
John Koskinen, said she never made it past the GS-15 level to a more senior
position in part because there was no mentoring system in the Navy. And
with 95 percent of the top positions held by men, it was difficult to even
find another woman to turn to, she said.
Zippora "Zip" Brown, vice president of the E-government Solutions Group
at American Management Systems Inc., sees mentoring as an important part
of women's advancement in government and the private sector. "It comes down
to who you work for. The trick is to find a mentor or a sponsor who will
make their case with management to make it happen," said Brown, who believed
government was more pro-active in promoting women's careers than private
industry when she joined AMS as a programmer 23 years ago.
Women in senior executive positions like NSF's Massaro often make an
effort to mentor younger colleagues but find that even in senior jobs they
need their own network. Executive Women in Government (EWG), a group of
about 250 women, tries to serve as such an outlet by promoting education,
networking and mentoring.
EWG president-elect Paula Lettice uses the organization to make contacts
in federal agen-cies who might be able to help her when she is looking for
partners. Lettice, managing director for budget and planning at the State
Department, said the group offers workshops and informational sessions,
as well as networking opportunities and speaker luncheons.
One place that women have made clear inroads is at the Defense Department,
where everyone — from foot soldiers in the field to military commanders
in the war room — must have computer skills. Indeed, the proportion of women
in high-tech jobs is rising even as government shrinks.
Joanne Arnette, 49, DLA's current CIO, went to work at 28 as an Army
intern after her children were born, and she's been moving up the ladder
ever since. "I certainly have felt the glass ceiling at times was there,
but just about the time I needed to get a crack in it, I have burst through,"
said Arnette. "Government is one of the very best places for women. They
really take equal opportunity seriously, and they mean it."
While Arnette said at times she has seen military men block the career
paths of women, "the old-boy network is not totally overwhelming anymore,"
she said. "It is being left behind by a new generation of open-minded military
leaders. It's an evolutionary process, not a revolutionary process."
Barriers to women entering upper echelons of IT management may be coming
down, but some of the most critical people in government organizations — secretarial and administrative staff — risk getting left behind unless they
are trained and mentored in IT jobs, observers say.
In Bajcsy's NSF office, for example, most of the people responsible
for guiding proposals and contracts through the bureaucratic checks are
women. But their importance is not reflected in the opportunities given
to them. "As the sophistication of the IT gets higher, the expectations
of these administrative support people [are] higher," Bajcsy said. "But
if they don't grow as the technology grows, they are sort of stuck in the
Flexibility is the key to creating avenues into the IT work force, Morella
said. "Bill Gates didn't get through college," she said. "We do have to
examine desire, commitment and ability and not be so rigid with requirements
that they become barriers. I think we need to start early and get them interested."