Glass Ceiling in Federal Law Enforcement: An Exploratory Analysis of the Factors Contributing to Women’s Career Advancement

AuthorHelen H. Yu
Published date01 June 2020
Date01 June 2020
Subject MatterArticles
Review of Public Personnel Administration
2020, Vol. 40(2) 183 –201
© The Author(s) 2018
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0734371X18794254
Glass Ceiling in Federal Law
Enforcement: An Exploratory
Analysis of the Factors
Contributing to Women’s
Career Advancement
Helen H. Yu1
In recent years, there has been limited focus on representative bureaucracy at
the upper levels of government organizations. Scholarship on the glass ceiling has
emphasized systematic and sociopsychological barriers as impediments for women to
advance into upper level management positions. Despite the importance of continuing
to highlight these obstacles, factors contributing to their success have received little
attention in public administration. This study provides a descriptive analysis of the
factors contributing to women’s career advancement in federal law enforcement.
Using survey data collected from 32 senior female federal law enforcement officers
working in 16 federal law enforcement agencies, nine themes emerge as factors
contributing to their success. The topic of the glass ceiling continues to be relevant in
today’s literature for responding to women’s lack of passive or active representation
in the upper ranks of nontraditional occupations such as law enforcement.
gender and public personnel administration, federal government HRM, workplace
environment/culture, diversity, discrimination, glass ceiling
The subject of women and the glass ceiling has been studied extensively since
Hymowitz and Schellhardt (1986) first coined the term in a Wall Street Journal report
to exemplify the invisible barriers women face as they climb the corporate ladder.
1University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, Honolulu, USA
Corresponding Author:
Helen H. Yu, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, 2424 Maile Way, Saunders Hall 631, Honolulu,
HI 96822, USA.
794254ROPXXX10.1177/0734371X18794254Review of Public Personnel AdministrationYu
184 Review of Public Personnel Administration 40(2)
Although the term is mostly used to portray women’s experiences in the private sector,
its relevance now includes the public sector, as women are also less likely than men to
exercise managerial control in public organizations. To illustrate, despite women rep-
resenting 44% of the federal workforce (and 47% overall in the U.S. labor market),
women comprise only 34.4% of all Senior Executive Service (SES) positions in the
federal government and only 36% of all supervisors and managers (Maldonado, 2015;
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2017; U.S. Office of Personnel Management, 2015).
To combat the difficulties women (and minorities) have in advancing to management
and decision-making positions, Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1991 established a
21-member Federal Glass Ceiling Commission to study these invisible or artificial
barriers and issued recommendations for eliminating these career impediments in their
historic 1995 report, A Solid Investment: Making Full Use of the Nation’s Human
Capital. Although the Commission disbanded in 1996 after completing its mandate,
many governmental, professional, and scholarly institutions have continued to debate
the glass ceiling by collecting and updating statistical data on various occupations and
The current study contributes to this scholarship by examining the glass ceiling in
federal law enforcement. The majority of research on women in policing have ignored
the experiences of federal officers, choosing to present women at all levels of law
enforcement—federal, state, and local—as a homogeneous group (Yu, 2015). Such
thinking is antiquated; federal law enforcement agencies differ from state and local
police agencies and vary markedly from agency to agency (Yu, 2015). More than 95
federal law enforcement agencies exist across all 50 states, the District of Columbia,
U.S. territories, and in an ever-increasing number of foreign countries, employing
more than 120,000 federal officers (Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers,
2017; Reaves, 2012). However, women comprise just 15.5% of all federal law
enforcement officers authorized to carry firearms and make arrests, and despite a
surge in hiring after the tragic events of 9/11, their presence has changed very little in
the past decade (Langston, 2010; Reaves, 2012). The number of top female execu-
tives is even worse. Only seven women—Teresa C. Chambers, U.S. Park Police
(2002-2003); Karen P. Tandy, Drug Enforcement Administration (2003-2007);
Michele M. Leonhart, Drug Enforcement Administration (2007-2015); Stacia A.
Hylton, U.S. Marshals Service (2011-2015); Julia A. Pierson, U.S. Secret Service
(2013-2014); Sarah R. Saldana, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (2014-2017);
and Carla L. Provost, U.S. Border Patrol (2017-Present)—in the 45-year history of
women’s occupation in federal law enforcement have ever “shattered” the glass ceil-
ing by leading a major federal law enforcement agency (Schulz, 2004; U.S. Customs
and Border Protection, 2017; Yu, 2015, 2017). Although the federal government has
progressed in having a more diverse workplace, and the percentage of women in
management has steadily been on the rise, it does not appear women are passively
represented at either the street or top levels of leadership in federal law enforcement.
This study was designed to provide guidance to public organizations interested in
improving gender representation in the upper ranks, as well as the next generation of
women leaders.

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