Breaking through the glass ceiling: Career advancement of African-Americans in the federal government

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Public Administration


Patricia Ingraham


African Americans in the federal government, career advancement within the federal civil service

Subject Categories

Public Administration


This study examines the career advancement of African Americans in the federal government.

Data (1992) from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management's Central Personnel Data File are used to examine the question "What is the impact of positions held by African Americans in the federal civil service structure on their career advancement prospects?" Two hypotheses about the representation of African Americans in federal occupations are presented: (1) "African American federal employees work within a narrow range of key jobs;" (2) "The key jobs in which African Americans are concentrated have lower promotion opportunities." Comparisons of African Americans and whites in federal occupations, key jobs, and GS-15 occupations do not support the hypotheses. African Americans share many of the same key jobs as whites; the majority of these shared occupations offer formal promotion opportunities to the GS-15 level. The differences in the lists highlight the importance of specific occupations as career pipelines to higher grade level positions.

Interviews with African American members of the Senior Executive Service (SES) address the question "What factors do African American executives identify as important to their career advancement within the federal civil service?" Eight categories of key events are identified: Career Moves, Negative Encounters With Boss, Encounters with Employees, Improving Skills, Family/Community Ties, Having Mentors/Supporters, Military Service, and Race Matters. Twenty-eight lessons represent four categories: Take Control of Your Career, Treat Employees Well, Get The Job Done, and Dealing With Racethnicity. In terms of skills used to perform their jobs, African American SES members are similar to their white peers. Yet, their opportunities to develop and exercise these skills are believed to be influenced by their racial status.

The study results suggest that the answer to the question "Given the federal government's commitment to representative bureaucracy, why are there not more African Americans in the career, non-appointed positions of the Senior Executive Service?" lies in the relationship between promotion opportunity structures, how African Americans are distributed in an organization's occupations, and how that distribution affects workplace experiences.


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