Future of Work

The challenges and opportunities for women in the public sector

This article is published in collaboration with McKinsey & Company
The latest edition of Mckinsey's annual Women in the Workplace report reveals that the public sector lags private-sector organizations in critical areas that could help curb burnout and attrition among women managers.

The latest edition of Mckinsey's annual Women in the Workplace report reveals that the public sector lags private-sector organizations in critical areas that could help curb burnout and attrition among women managers. Image: Pexels/Pavel Danilyuk

Tatenda Mabikacheche
Associate, McKinsey & Company
Nora Gardner
Senior Partner, McKinsey & Company
Dani Lucas
Engagement Manager, McKinsey & Company
Megan McConnell
Partner, McKinsey & Company
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Future of Work

  • Women are better represented in the US public and social sectors than in corporations.
  • However, these sectors lag behind others in areas that could make it hard to recruit and retain tomorrow's women leaders.
  • To address this, governments need to focus on some key areas, like creating a culture of inclusion and belonging, providing flexible work arrangements, investing in professional development and promoting women into leadership roles.
  • By taking these steps, governments can create a more welcoming and supportive environment for women and, ultimately, build a stronger workforce.

When it comes to women’s representation in the US workplace, the public sector continues to have a clear edge over corporations. However, new McKinsey research finds that governmental organizations may struggle to keep leading the way toward gender parity. The latest edition of our annual Women in the Workplace report reveals that the public sector lags private-sector organizations in critical areas that could help curb burnout and attrition among women managers. But there are steps leaders can take to shore up support for women in management roles to ensure the civil services continue to attract and retain the talented women the nation needs.

A joint effort by McKinsey and LeanIn.Org, our 2022 report surveyed more than 40,000 people across more than 300 organizations to find out how women across the identity spectrum are faring in all levels of the workplace. In line with previous years, our latest survey found that women are better represented in public- and social-sector talent pipelines than their private-sector counterparts. But there is still work to be done. While women of color (WOC) are better represented at every level of the public sector compared with private organizations, they still occupy a smaller share of civil-service roles than White women, especially at the midmanager level. And although women are close to or above parity from the entry level to the senior vice president (SVP) level in the public sector, they remain underrepresented at the top of the talent pipeline, such as in the secretary’s or governor’s office and in legislature or oversight roles.

Have you read?
  • Global Gender Gap Report 2023

Our latest survey showed another troubling trend: the unprecedented burnout rate among women leaders seen in 2021 has continued to worsen, with our latest survey recording the highest rates of attrition for women leaders since the report launched in 2015.

Even though the public sector has better representation for women compared with the private sector, it underperforms in crucial areas, including setting manager expectations, training managers, and offering career development programs such as mentoring and sponsorship. Failure to deliver on these table stakes policies could be fueling greater burnout and attrition of managers and women at all levels.

In this article, we take a deeper dive into Women in the Workplace 2022 to examine where the public-sector talent pipeline diverges from that of the private sector. We also explore the opportunities to continue to grow the public and social sectors’ position as a front-runner in women’s representation in the workforce, with a focus on better supporting managers.

The state of women in the public sector

A deeper dive into the latest Women in the Workplace research reveals several noteworthy trends (Exhibit 1).

Women's representation is slightly higher across the public- and social-sector pipeline than in other industries
Exhibit 1: Women's representation is slightly higher across the public- and social-sector pipeline than in other industries Image: McKinsey & Company

Progress in mending the ‘broken rung’

Since launching in 2015, the Women in the Workplace report has tracked progress toward eliminating the so-called “broken rung”—the lower rates of promotion for women from entry-level to managerial positions. Lower promotion rates cascade down the pipeline, making it difficult for organizations to lay a foundation for sustained progress at more senior levels.

In the overall workforce, the broken rung has persisted every year since we launched Women in the Workplace. Across all sectors in 2022, for every 100 men who were promoted, 87 women and just 82 women of color were promoted. A more granular breakdown reveals that for every 100 men who were promoted, only 75 Latinas were promoted. Rates were lower still for Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, and Indigenous women.

However, our 2022 report also found that women in the public and social sectors saw higher promotion rates than men: 107 women for every 100 men promoted. By contrast, only 87 women in the overall workforce were promoted for every 100 men. WOC in government saw a promotion rate from entry level to manager of 4.2 percent compared with 1.6 percent for all women. These findings indicate that while the public and social sectors make up a small proportion of all industries, they are setting a higher standard on the promotion to manager relative to other sectors. While this is an encouraging trend, it is important to note that WOC are starting from a point of lower representation in entry-level roles.

Recent shifts in hiring and attrition for women in the public and social sectors

Other key shifts emerged in our 2022 survey compared with the previous year.

First, the share of women being hired in the public and social sectors is now higher than for all sectors at all tenure levels. However, a larger share of women than men in the public and social sectors were internal hires across all levels except in SVP and C-suite roles. This is important to highlight because such internal hiring may spread around representation without increasing the aggregate.

Second, our latest survey saw a significant increase in women’s representation in the public and social sectors in cabinet and department leader roles, from 41 percent in 2021 to 53 percent in 2022 (compared with 28 percent of women in equivalent roles across all sectors in 2022). This shift likely reflects the Biden administration’s focus on diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA), which has encouraged increased representation and more appointments of women leaders, particularly WOC.

Third, our 2022 survey found that while attrition of senior leaders has increased significantly across all sectors for both women and men, the gap between men and women is at its largest since we began the survey. For every woman promoted to the next level, two women directors chose to leave their organization—the highest rate of attrition relative to the average from 2017 to 2021 (Exhibit 2). Although attrition rates were lower at most levels in the public and social sectors compared with all sectors, they were still higher than the historical average.

Women leaders are leaving their organization at the highest rate in years.
Exhibit 2: Women leaders are leaving their organization at the highest rate in years. Image: McKinsey & Company

The role managers play in attracting and retaining women workers

Although the public and social sectors have led the way in women’s representation in entry- to midlevel roles since we began our annual survey, these sectors continue to face challenges when it comes to supporting managers.

Supporting and retaining women managers sets up the next generation of women leaders for success, and can therefore help compensate for the increased attrition rates in senior women observed in our latest survey. By contrast, a lack of support for women in management roles can diminish the impact of mending the broken rung and hinder the recruitment and retention of younger, entry-level women. Indeed, manager support was one of the top five factors younger women across all sectors cited when considering whether to leave their jobs. Other primary factors included opportunity to advance; flexibility; company commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI); and company commitment to employee well-being—attributes that managers play a critical role in encouraging.

When managers are supported in their efforts to recruit and retain top talent, women in particular benefit across several dimensions that influence their experience in their jobs, including advancement opportunities, psychological safety, and work culture (Exhibit 3). But our survey revealed there is a growing gap between what’s expected of managers and how they’re being trained and rewarded to deliver on those expectations (Exhibit 4).

When managers show up consistently, women and organizations benefit.
Exhibit 3: When managers show up consistently, women and organizations benefit. Image: McKinsey & Company
The public and social sectors fall behind on setting high manager expectations and fostering career development.
Exhibit 4: The public and social sectors fall behind on setting high manager expectations and fostering career development. Image: McKinsey & Company

Based on the overall findings of our latest report, we’ve identified three steps leaders can take to support manager development and close this gap across all sectors (including government) and, in doing so, encourage the retention of women, and others, at all levels.

Train managers to foster diverse, inclusive, and hybrid teams

Expectations for managers have been increasing over the past two years. In addition to their traditional responsibilities, they are now often running DEI for their organizations and managing hybrid teams. Managers are also increasingly expected to support employee well-being, including helping employees maintain a sustainable workload.

But training for this new scope of work has not kept up. Sixty-two percent of organizations say they train managers to manage remote employees, but only 46 percent of managers say they receive such training. And while 62 percent of employees felt that managers checked on their personal well-being, far fewer (38 percent) felt their managers went a step further by working to ensure their workloads were manageable. Indeed, 78 percent of organizations expect managers to promote well-being, while only 48 percent train managers on minimizing burnout. This is particularly important for women, half of whom say that having a manageable workload is a signal that a company is committed to employee well-being.

Targeted training could help public-sector managers better support their teams, including women. Topics to consider include proactively supporting employee career development, fostering a sense of inclusion and belonging, managing remote or hybrid employees (setting effective boundaries), facilitating team conversations about diversity issues, combating bias in promotions or everyday interactions, and effectively checking in on employee well-being. The US Office of Personnel Management recently announced that it would provide free, government-wide training to help federal workers improve performance and efficiency when serving in hybrid work environments. Such actions are positive examples of how the government is beginning to prioritize these topics more.

Implement targeted sponsorship programs

Women employees could benefit if organizations expanded the scope of sponsorship programs. Unlike mentorship, which focuses on giving advice, answering questions, and strategizing about an employee’s career and professional development, sponsorship connects an employee to people, opportunities, and networks that directly help advance their careers.

Targeted sponsorship programs could make a significant impact on women’s careers, especially those of WOC. For example, Black and Asian women often don’t have strong allies on their team advocating on their behalf for increased pay or highlighting their accomplishments. Because of biases in performance evaluations, women and WOC often receive lower performance ratings and are given vague, unspecific feedback that hinders their ability to advance. Having a sponsor who vouches for their performance, challenges biases, and connects them to a larger network could help women advance in their careers and feel more supported in the workplace.

For public-sector managers, this means finding time to connect with more-junior colleagues and being more intentional, specifically about the type of support provided to women within the organization. Public-sector leaders could also consider incorporating building sponsorship relationships into managers’ evaluations and training.

Update performance evaluations

Virtually all organizations build business goals into managers’ performance reviews, but very few do the same for metrics related to people management and DEI. This is an incomplete, but easily fixable, view of performance. Women managers could especially benefit from refined performance evaluations because they tend to invest more in people management and DEI than men in the same roles. Including this type of work in performance reviews would make it more likely that women managers would be recognized for their efforts. This in turn could lead to higher performance ratings, faster advancement, and higher pay. Organizations could also implement reviews of manager performance from employees, adding prompts to evaluation forms to gather more nuanced input.

Indeed, one federal agency has already incorporated a DEIA goal into its Senior Executive Service (SES) performance targets, part of a broader implementation strategy to make every SES accountable for driving these initiatives.

In addition, many organizations track attrition rates, promotion rates, and other career outcomes, as well as conduct surveys to measure employee satisfaction and well-being. Insights from these processes could be built into public-sector managers’ performance evaluations. Leaders could also consider more clearly sharing their expectations and rewarding results. Sharing well-being and diversity metrics or publicly acknowledging managers who go above and beyond for their employees could be useful in boosting manager morale and motivation. Public-sector entities could also consider evaluating managers on managing employee career development and managing team morale and retention.

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