WASHINGTON -- When it comes to minorities and women, the face of the federal government looks more and more like America. When it comes to promotions, it's a different story.
While their numbers are rising at entry-level positions, the percentage of blacks, Hispanics and women in federal service drops dramatically -- at times almost by half -- at crucial mid-management levels where many decisions are made.
Presidents Bush and Clinton have set good examples at the top, civil rights advocates say -- Bush leads all presidents except Clinton in naming women and minorities to political appointments. But that progress has not trickled down evenly.
''When the decision-makers are white males, they pick those close to them,'' says Avis Buchanan, an attorney with the Washington Lawyers' Committee, which has handled many class-action personnel suits against the government. ''Call it the 'similar to me' phenomenon.''
After a wave of lawsuits, settled in the past few years but dating back through the administrations of Clinton, George Bush and Ronald Reagan, some agencies have taken action.
The Secret Service, for example, appointed its first black woman supervisor this month. Last year, the Agriculture Department -- already accused of favoring white farmers in its subsidy policies -- introduced staff minority advisory councils.
Colin Powell, the first black secretary of state, recently called attention to the place of minorities in the government when he pledged to raise the numbers of Hispanics working at the State Department.
''There will come a day when a future secretary of state will be able to stand up here proudly and look at a more diverse work force than we have now,'' he told Hispanic interns last month.
The government acknowledges that the numbers of Hispanics in its ranks are low. But overall, an Office of Personnel Management report describes the government as the pacesetter in employing minorities.
Indeed, the government is ahead of the private sector in employing minorities, and is about level in employing women.
Blacks, 12.9 percent of the U.S. population, make up 17.6 percent of the federal work force, ahead of the 11.2 percent in the private sector. Women, just over half the population, comprise 43.8 percent of federal workers, not far behind the 46.6 percent in the private sector.
But blacks are just 9.7 percent of mid-managers and 7.1 percent of senior managers. Women hold 30.7 percent of mid-management jobs and 24.2 percent of senior management positions.
Why the gap? Minority advocates say promotion incentives meant to reward ambitious workers are sometimes abused by managers to favor white men.
Some recent examples:
In December, a judge approved a $4 million settlement that said Education Department managers had abused a system designed to give promotions to those who assumed extra responsibilities. Those responsibilities were assigned almost exclusively to whites, the settlement said.
At the FBI, service in tough, SWAT-like teams was often a prerequisite for moving up the ladder -- but women were discouraged and even blocked from joining such units, according to class action lawsuits brought by women agents in the early 1990s. The agency headed off the lawsuits by changing its promotion practices, said Robert Shaffer, a lawyer for the women.
FBI spokeswoman Charlene Sloan said SWAT team experience was never a prerequisite for promotion.
In a 1997 settlement, the Library of Congress acknowledged that a broad exemption to standard promotions procedures introduced by Congress to attract talented outsiders had been grossly abused to favor whites.
In a 1996 settlement with black foreign service officers, the State Department -- without acknowledging fault -- agreed to outside supervision of its promotions and to pay compensation. Lawyers showed that plum posts -- for instance, in Europe -- were mostly given to whites.
Mid-managers are important because they decide how to fill the gaps in broadly written legislation and where to spend money.
''Political people come and go, but those people make real decisions,'' said William Kennard, Federal Communications Commission director under Clinton.
During his term, Kennard told his executives that their own careers would be assessed by how equitably they promoted women and minorities. He said his was a lone voice, even in the relatively liberal Clinton administration.
''The civil service is hierarchical, it perpetuates systematic racism,'' said Kennard, who is black. ''You're not promoted on merit. You have an old boys' network.''
Valerie Grant spent the last 16 years of her 30 years at the Education Department just below the managerial level. She was rejected for promotion more than 30 times, despite her consistent ''most qualified'' rating in internal department reviews.
''I wanted to do something different, exercise my abilities, develop things,'' said Grant, who is black. ''I wanted to be creative.''
Larry Bussey, a colleague at the department who joined Grant in the class action suit settled in December, said managers never trusted blacks.
''It became clear there were no opportunities beyond the journeyman level,'' he said. ''We were the worker bees, we carried the water.''
On the Net:
Washington Lawyers' Committee:
Education Department's settlement agreement:
OPM report to Congress: http://www.opm.gov/feorp
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