WASHINGTON (07/31/2000) - 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," she said.
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 students.
* 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 U.S. 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 U.S.
Army, U.S. Navy and U.S. 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 same position."
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."