“I care about Washington. I just care about government, and I care about IT,” says Adair Martinez, from left, voicing beliefs shared by her tech compatriots at VA, Eleanor Sullivan-Friday and Laura Nash.
Feb 08 2008

The X Factor

Women find mind and mission align in government tech jobs. What’s the takeaway that agencies can capitalize on to help maintain a skilled federal IT workforce?

One-third of women with graduate or professional degrees are not in the paid U.S. workforce — they’re at home caring for their families, according to the Center for Work-Life Policy in New York. Contrast that with the need to fill information technology jobs in the government, a need thatis expected to keep rising given that more than one-third of federal employees will be eligible to retire over the next five years.

These statistics are not lost on the Office of Personnel Management. It encourages agencies to develop programs that will attract women to government and help them move up its ranks, according to OPM Director Linda M. Springer.

In its annual reporting on diversity in government jobs, OPM notes that women make up about a quarter of all senior paid officials for technical jobs in grades higher than GS 15 and a third for grades 13 through 15.

IT is a draw. There are more women in government IT jobs than in industry; they tend to stay in those jobs both in government and with contractors supporting government; and they have a passion for their profession. FedTech interviewed several women in IT leadership to identify what makes a job in government IT attractive — information that can help IT shops plan for recruitment and succession.

A fulfilled sense of purpose through service to country resounded as the tie that binds women to their government systems work. Theirs is not a simple patriotism, nor did it all begin after Sept. 11. Rather, it’s a complex and varying confluence of interests, aptitude and opportunity.

Some women started with the government out of convenience or good timing; for others, public service was practically the family business. But all the women FedTech talked with described an alignment of their professional values, goals and skills with the responsibilities and missions of their particular jobs and agencies.

The tremendous scale and scope of the national projects to which they apply their knowledge and talents — and the subsequent broad impact and pride in their contributions — are hard to find anywhere else, these women say.

“In the private sector, as I understand it, compensation is generally much better,” says Jacquelyn Patillo, deputy CIO for the Transportation Department, who has spent her entire career in civil service at the city, state and federal levels. “In the public sector, rewards come from creating and executing policy. Even though the huge bureaucracy is sometimes slow moving, nothing transcends that feeling of accomplishment when you are looking at the health and welfare of the populace.”

Plus, says Adair Martinez, deputy assistant secretary for information protection and risk management at the Veterans Affairs Department, there’s fairness in the government’s transparent hiring and promotions process.

“We all know if you’re a Grade 13, you’re going to get paid in this range. That reassures me. I feel like the playing field is more level,” she says. “Qualifications are very strict when we write a job description. I find that structure very reassuring. The degrees you have matter in some way, but it’s a combination of education and experience.”

Numbers and Trends

Women hold 33 percent of all federal computer and mathematical scientist positions, about 29 percent of computer scientist positions and 18 percent of computer engineering positions, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology.

“Women in federal IT occupations may find less discrimination, more opportunities for advancement, and greater flexibility in their working environments, explaining their higher representation in federal positions,” says Jenny Slade, communications director for NCWIT in Boulder, Colo.

Another aspect of the appeal may be that a government IT job differs from a comparable job elsewhere in that the problem-solving focus is on providing a benefit to the country’s citizens rather than on generating profit, says Susannah Schiller, deputy CIO at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

“The environment is different,” Schiller says. “At NIST, as a research organization, we’re very into sharing ideas and the science that we do because we’re a government agency and we work heavily on standards. Intellectually, it’s a very open organization, and I like that.”

Schiller says that she didn’t set out looking for a job in the government but for a position as a statistician where she could apply her skills to intriguing problems.

Across all federal IT occupations, women represent 40% of IT professionals at the GS-12 level, although their numbers decline at higher grades.

Still, these numbers are significantly higher than those found in the overall U.S. workforce, where women hold approximately 27% of computer and mathematical occupations.

SOURCE: National Center

for Women & Information Technology

“We have a lot of exciting science here and interesting ways to look for solutions,” she says. “As deputy CIO, I’m very focused on making sure the IT infrastructure is available to support NIST scientists in achieving our mission. That includes making sure we’ve made the right IT investment, making sure we provide IT services that are well-managed, and making sure that we provide flexibility in our environment so that the scientists can use the specialized IT that they need.”

Schiller says she hears stories of girls who didn’t feel they should go into math or were discouraged from going into science, but that she was fortunate not to have experienced that herself.

“When I first started my career, there were occasions when I felt my lack of gray hair was a hindrance. It wasn’t an ageism thing, just that I didn’t have enough experience,” she says. “But I never felt any discrimination due to my gender.”

Martinez went to a women’s college and was the first woman to serve as deputy director of telecommunications at the Justice Department. She recognizes the challenges faced by women, but like many, counts on the quality of her work to erase some of the distinctions.

“I think I’m incredibly competent,” she says. “Yeah, it’s harder, and we have to prove ourselves all the time. But you’ve just got to love what you’re doing. At this point I ignore it — I just don’t notice it anymore.”

NCWIT’s Slade says that certain employment issues have not yet reached an across-the-board state of equity — in the public or private sectors.

“It’s likely that federal IT employers face the same recruitment and retention challenges as those in the civilian workforce when it comes to women: a lack of women in the IT education pipeline, difficulty in balancing work demands and family commitments, pervasive unconscious bias in performance appraisal and advancement, and an image of IT occupations that is less than glamorous,” she says.

Call to Service

The call to public service comes at different ages and stages, as evidenced by a triumvirate of women in IT at the VA. Martinez joined the government full-time when she was 33, following a family tradition of public service. Eleanor Sullivan-Friday, acting associate deputy assistant secretary for cybersecurity, started in a clerical position when she was 20. And Laura Nash just recently joined the VA in her 40s, as director of risk assessment service.

“I’m a government brat,” Martinez says, noting that her father was in the Coast Guard and she was raised and received her liberal arts education in and around the nation’s capital. “I care about Washington. I just care about government, and I care about IT. I believe in public service.”

Before joining VA, Nash had always worked in industry, including the past 15 years when she worked for a government contractor. “You can only do so much advising and assisting,” she says. “If you want to have an impact and make a difference, you have to be a government employee.”

Another benefit of government employment is the opportunity for on-the-job training and continuing education, Martinez says. “The government will just give you as many challenges as you want. [It] is so incredibly rich in resources.”

One of the down sides, Martinez notes, is a lack of interaction across agencies to find centers of excellence. “We’re trying to become the gold standard of security at VA,” she explains. “The advantage industry gives us is that they’re out marketing to State or Interior, so they bring ideas to us. But we rarely talk government to government. Industry comes and connects us. If industry says there is something exciting going on, we say we want to see it working, and that’s how we end up talking to government.”

Routes to IT

Molly O’Neill — CIO and part of another female IT trio at the Environmental Protection Agency — says she got her start in IT as a political appointee in the Bush administration. Confirmed in December 2006, O’Neill acknowledges that her perspective is slightly different from career civil servants.

More X Factor: Read the FedTech Interview with EPA CIO Molly O’Neill.

Her academic interests in high school were science and technology, and she earned a college degree in biology with thoughts of medical school. She worked jobs as varied as an environmental biologist collecting and analyzing field samples and a management consultant supporting state environmental agencies that were changing their business processes to improve effectiveness and comply with new regulations.

“I backed into IT like a lot of people, based on where I was in my career and also my interest,” says O’Neill, who also serves as EPA’s assistant administrator for the Office of Environmental Information. “I had an environmental policy and management background. The real choice was when I went to work for an IT firm so I could have the three-headed monster of experience. As a CIO, especially at EPA, bringing my environmental, management and technological knowledge together has helped me be able to step into my role quickly.”

Photo: Sean McCormick
At EPA, deputy CIO Linda Travers, left, and CTO Myra Galbreath round out an all-women senior IT staff.

Deputy CIO Linda Travers, a native Washingtonian whose father and grandfather worked in federal government, calls herself a “charter member” of EPA, having worked with the agency since it opened its doors for business in 1970. She made the move into IT after first being involved in EPA environmental program areas, including at one point being part of an office that registers pesticides for use in the United States. Travers cites that endeavor as an example of how vast the work of government can be.

“The use of pesticides touches every single citizen of the United States, from the fruits and vegetables we eat to the use of pesticides in our homes and on our lawns,” she says. “When evaluating a pesticide’s use, EPA may receive a health and safety study that is 100,000 pages in length. The use of technology lets the scientists at EPA manage it, sort it and use the study to make decisions.”

Travers lauds EPA as a diverse agency offering opportunities to move among different environmental programs and regional offices within the organization. For a government career in IT, she says it’s important not to focus too much on the technology side of things, but rather to think broadly about how to “broker” the collection and use of information to meet the needs of a particular agency.

Fading Line

For her part, Chief Technology Officer Myra Galbreath, another career fed, says she isn’t so sure there is a real difference between working for government or the private sector. She aims to dispel some of the myths about government work being easy or a respite for those who just want to clock in and clock out.

“A person’s work ethic is their work ethic,” Galbreath says. “It’s simply not true that you won’t work that hard if you work for the government. It’s the same whether you’re with industry or government.”

But there is a different perspective in the sense of accomplishment, she says.

“The span of who you affect is huge,” Galbreath says. “We’re working with regulated industries and with other federal and state agencies. It affects a lot of people.

“Sometimes you don’t realize until you step back how many organizations and people it is, and you go, ‘Wow, that’s really something — what a mission.’ We have a mission that everyone can grab hold of, can really wrap themselves around, and they stay because of that sense of accomplishment.”


Photo: James Kegley