Gender Representation in the Public Sector

  • Sebawit G. BishuEmail author
Living reference work entry



Equal opportunities for women in the public workforce.


A bureaucracy that is representative of the public it serves can be beneficial in two ways. First, it can help shape policy interests that represent the population it serves (Park 2012). Second, bureaucracies that reflect the population may promote responsive and effective service delivery (Seldon 1997). This chapter applies this understanding to gender issues. The literature has repeatedly demonstrated that gender representation is not only desired but also necessary for the effective implementation of public services. Despite the fact that women are increasingly participating in the formal economy, today in the twenty-first century, the gender gap remains visible. This chapter has three main sections. The first section presents a discussion on the different forms of gender representation in the workforce. The second section identifies and discusses barriers to equitable gender representation in the workforce. This section provides a discussion on individual- and organizational-level barriers to women in the workforce. The chapter ends with a discussion on why promoting equitable gender representation matters to individuals, organizations, and society as a whole.

Gender Representation in the Workforce

The theory of representative bureaucracy provides the argument that public servants (bureaucrats) that share demographic characteristics with the public act in ways that benefit the public they serve (Mosher 1968). The theory widely applies two forms of representation: passive and active representation. Passive representation applies to the situation when public employees share demographic characteristics with the public they serve. The two most often studied forms of passive representation are gender and race/ethnic representation (Atkins and Wilkins 2013; Mosher 1968). Active representation, on the other hand, occurs when shared demographic characteristics prompt bureaucracies make decisions that benefit the community with whom they share demographic identities. The discussion on gender representation in this chapter primarily focuses on passive representation of women across different occupations, agencies, and positions in public organizations.

The literature on gender representation identifies three ways that women are being stratified in the workforce. Occupational representation identifies the underrepresentation of women in male-dominated occupations and their overrepresentation in female-dominated occupations. Agency representation concerns with women’s underrepresentation in agencies that serve specific purposes and their overrepresentation in others. Position representation uncovers the underrepresentation of women in management and leadership positions. To describe position segregation, the literature often uses the glass-ceiling metaphor to explain the barriers that women face when climbing organizational ladders. The barriers vary by occupational and agency categories. The following section presents a discussion on each of the aforementioned types of gender representation in the workplace.

Occupational Representation

Occupational representation traces the equitable or inequitable presence of women and minorities within and across occupational categories. Compared to the other two types of workplace gender representation, inequality is most pronounced in occupational representation. Overtime, gender-based occupational representation gap has shifted for some occupations but not for others. Historically, women are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields and are overrepresented in education- and social service-related occupations (Alkadry and Tower 2014).

The occupational divide along gender lines has implications for women in the workforce. The first is lower economic return. In the workforce women are often overrepresented in occupational categories that offer lower pay. Gender-based occupational segregation is also a contributing factor to the gender wage gap (Bishu and Alkadry 2017; Hsieh et al. 2013). The second implication links to the argument presented by active representation. That is, the scarcity of women in male-dominated occupations provides less opportunity for women to engage in policy decisions that have direct and indirect consequences to the public (Hindera 1993).

Agency Representation

Agency representation traces the equitable presence, underrepresentation, or overrepresentation of women in different types of agencies. The literature indicates that women in government tend to be overrepresented in redistributive agencies (Kim 2004; Newman 1994). Alkadry and Tower (2014) discuss that “redistributive agencies include all agencies that are concerned with the reallocation of money and provision of services to certain segments of society and include agencies dealing health, welfare, or education” (p. 102). In contrast, women are underrepresented in distributive and regulatory agencies (Alkadry and Tower 2014). The working nature of distributive agencies is such that they require a high degree of collaboration (Newman 1994). Regulatory agencies represent agencies that are concerned with rulemaking and implementing governmental laws and regulations (Alkadry and Tower 2014; Newman 1994 and Lowi 1985). Even within redistributive agencies, key leadership positions are often occupied by men (Miller 2009; Riccucci 2009). Moreover, the absence of equitable representation in distributive and regulatory agencies leaves women with limited opportunity to participate in policy decisions concerning the work of these agencies.

Position Representation

Position representation uncovers the equitable, under-, and overrepresentation of women in leadership positions in organizations. The literature often uses the glass-ceiling metaphor to illustrate the barriers and challenges that women experience as they climb up organizational ladders. Bishu and Alkadry (2017) report that “promotion in the context of the glass ceiling concept addresses lack of equal opportunity presented to men and women in advancing into higher management positions” (p. 72). Current studies that examine gender representation in leadership positions argue that the human capital deficit argument does not explain the underrepresentation of women in leadership positions (Alkadry and Tower 2011). This is because today in the twenty-first century, women are increasingly engaged in pursuing educational and work opportunities. Gender representation in leadership positions also vary by occupational and agency categories. In occupations and agencies where women are overrepresented, the opportunity for women to engage in management is also higher. As it is the case with occupational and agency representation, engaging at management positions provides women the opportunity for policy participation and economic gain. Bishu and Alkadry (2017) report that access to management or leadership positions is one of the most critical predictors of the gender pay gap in the workforce.

Multi–Level Obstacles to Women in the Workforce

Individual-, organizational-, and societal-level factors shape the underrepresentation of women in male-dominated positions, occupations, and agencies. At individual level, social norms inform the roles that women play in their private and public lives. At organizational level, gendered organizational processes shape the opportunities that are accessible to women in the workforce. At societal level, gendered social norms shape stereotypes that determine who is fit to engage in certain occupations, positions, and organizations. The following section provides a discussion of the aforementioned barriers that limit women’s full participation in the workforce.

Societal–Level Factors: Gender Stereotypes

Gender stereotypes shape societal expectations of the role that men and women play in their private and public lives. Socially constructed gender stereotypes define the domain within which women engage in the workforce. Sabharwal (2015) presents that “A major source of discrimination in any organization is the strongly possessed values, beliefs and perceptions about the social role and behaviors of men and women” (p. 5). Hence, Sabharwal suggests that gender stereotypes are the underlying factor that fosters gender-based discrimination in the workforce.

Theoretical frameworks like social role theory or think manager, think male explain how gender relations in society shape perceptions of roles played by men and women in the workforce (Sabharwal 2015; Schein 1975, 2001). Think manager, think male theory specifically describes that masculine stereotypes often associate managerial or leadership roles as being fit for men (Schein 1975, 2001). Gender stereotypes limit opportunities that are accessible to women in the workforce, including opportunities to engage in male-dominated occupations, agencies, and positions. That being said, one cannot deny the changing landscape for women in the workforce. In the twenty-first century, with women’s increased participation in education and the workforce, stereotypes are slowly changing form and women are increasingly engaging in traditionally male-dominated roles. Nevertheless, the process is far from being undone (Guy and Newman 2004; Kelly and Newman 2001; Newman 1994; Stivers 2000).

Individual-Level Factors: Conflicting Roles of Care and Work

Socially constructed gender roles define the roles that men and women play in their private and public lives. Despite significant progress made toward women’s increased participation in the formal economy, they still bear the heavy burden of family caregiving responsibilities. Women that navigate the dual roles of family caregiving while juggling the demands of work are often discriminated at because they are perceived as less dedicated to the job (Smith 2012). Organizations also perceive the dual roles that women play as a factor that limits their ability to commit to the duties of the organization.

The challenges that women with family caregiving responsibilities experience are twofold. First, despite their ability to navigate work and caregiving responsibilities, women are often penalized for playing dual roles. Studies that compare the career trajectory of men and women before and after having children report that men are rewarded and women are penalized for having children (Kmec 2010). Kmec (2010) reports that family responsibility is perceived as a positive stabilizing factor for men, whereas for women, it is perceived as a destruction and as a factor which compromises their dedication to their job, the organization, or their career as a whole. Penalties in this case manifest in the form of “parental pay gap,” missed promotion opportunities, or poor performance evaluation (Kilbourne et al. 1994; Smith 2012).

The second penalty relates to career choices that women are often forced to make when faced with challenges of balancing work and family responsibilities. Career choices that involve on-and-off time from work have detrimental impact on the career trajectories of women. In the absence of social and institutional support, women are often forced to make career choices that involve on-and-off time from work. Therefore, organizations that fail to provide needed support for women to fully engage in the workforce are directly or indirectly shaping their engagement in the workforce.

Organizational–Level Factors: Gendered Organizations

Organizations are a place where collective societal values, structures, and processes are manifested. Kanter (1977) argues that “while organizations were being defined as sex-neutral machines, masculine principles were dominating the authority structures” (p. 46). Despite organizations being a reflection of societal values, their managements and work processes are often perceived as gender-neutral. Kanter’s work highlights the link between societal beliefs about gender roles and gendered organizational practices. The fact that most powerful positions, occupations, and agencies in government are populated with men is not a random occurrence but rather a process that demonstrates organizations as gendered processes.

Acker (1990) argues that “a systematic theory of gender and organizations” is critical to uncover gendered processes in organizations that reproduce unequal outcomes for men and women in the workforce (p. 140). She further argues that “organizations are one arena in which widely discriminated cultural images of gender are invented and reproduced” (p. 140). Here Acker identifies gender as the central element shaping organizational reasoning. Gendered organizational processes produce outcomes that reinforce societal gender stereotypes. Outcomes of gendered organizational practices are made apparent when women are missing from positions, occupations, and agencies that are recognized as male domains.

Why Representation Matters?

This section provides a discussion on why we should promote increased gender representation across different occupations, agencies, and positions in the public sector. The discussion here presents the benefit of gender representation from three standpoints. Discussed first is organizational-level benefit of gender representation. Second, citizens’ perspective discusses the symbolic and substantive values of gender representation in public organizations. Last, from individual standpoint, presented here are economic and social implications of gender representation in public organizations.

Equitable gender representation yields several benefits to organizations, its workforce, and citizens. From organizational point of view, opportunities for women to engage in male-dominated occupations, agencies, and positions open possibilities for organizations to tap into diverse perspectives. Discussing the added value of a diverse workforce where multiple identities are represented, Pynes (2013) presents that “evidence is growing that managing diversity leads to greater service effectiveness, efficiency, and productivity” (p. 115). Pynes further argues that organizations that tap into diverse workforce are able to draw on “creative alternatives” (p. 115). Creative alternatives are a result of multiple perspectives and viewpoints. Inclusion of multiple viewpoints enriches the policy-making process as well as policy outcomes. The hope is that, as more women engage in traditionally male domains, gendered organizational processes will give way to gender-conscious processes and outcomes.

The importance of gender representation from citizens’ standpoint presents two arguments. First, increased women’s participation in male-dominated spaces suggests better opportunity for women to make substantive contribution representing the public. Opportunities to represent public interest manifest in policy participation and service delivery. Second, the symbolic significance viewpoint of gender representation highlights that when women increasingly engage in traditionally male domains, the process aids to overcome gendered stereotypes. As more women engage in traditionally male occupations or in breaking the glass ceiling, the process helps to transform societal and institutional perceptions of the role that women play in the public sphere.

Individual-level argument highlights economic and social implications of gender underrepresentation in certain agencies, occupations, and positions. Research repeatedly demonstrates that position and occupational underrepresentation of women in male-dominated spheres accounts for a greater share of the gender pay gap in the workforce (Alkadry and Tower 2014; Bishu and Alkadry 2017; Blau and Kahn 2007). Similarly, research that indicates increased women’s representation in male domains shows that the process assists in reducing the gender pay gap (Hsieh et al. 2013). The rationale behind the gender pay gap argument is that male-dominated occupations and positions are associated with “male-oriented pay.” Hence, women working in female-dominated domains experience earning penalty for working in predominantly female occupations, agencies, and positions. Besides pay penalty, the literature shows that unequal opportunity for women in the workforce has implications for social recognition and job satisfaction (Kanter 1977; Jaffee 1989; Smith 2012).


Despite women’s increased participation in the workforce and acquired comparable qualifications as their male counterparts, research shows that they continue to be underrepresented in traditionally male-dominated occupations, agencies, and positions. This chapter presents a case for gender representation in the public sector workforce while also highlighting individual- and organizational-level barriers. The challenge of undertaking gender integration in traditionally male-dominated spheres calls for interventional efforts at individual, organizational, and societal levels.


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© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Public AffairsUniversity of Colorado DenverDenverUSA