Women Leaders in Federal Agencies: Their Challenges and Recommendations

Even in the twenty-first century, there is a gender gap in both the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) and the U.S. government.  As a female government employee, graduate student in environmental policy, and an engineering degree holder, I have personally witnessed disparity in the representation of women in the workforce and experienced some of the sexism and barriers women leaders face.

To discuss some of these challenges, I had the pleasure of talking to two female leaders from different government agencies.

Denise Kammerer-Cody is the Chief of Economic and Cultural Resources for the United States Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) New England District.  Kammerer-Cody is responsible for

United States Army Corps of Engineers Logo

identifying the economic benefits and impacts of Corps projects designed to “strengthen our Nation’s security, energize the economy and reduce risks from disasters.”

Kammerer-Cody leads by example and helps others lead.  She is a Federal Women’s Program manager, providing support and identifying barriers to women during the hiring process and through advancement.  Kammerer-Cody has brought motivational speakers into the Corps for presentations, and is always introducing people to others who may be able to help them advance in their careers and improve themselves.

DEC-LogoCarrie Meek Gallagher is the Regional Director for New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s (NYSDEC) Region 1.  Her region oversees Nassau and Suffolk counties to fulfill the NYSDEC’s mission “to conserve, improve and protect New York’s natural resources and environment and … to enhance the health, safety and welfare of the people of the state.”

As a leader, Meek Gallagher discusses local issues and coordinates with her superiors to make policy decisions.  She collaborates with local and state officials in order to make the best decision for Long Island’s environment.  Internally, she encourages and provides opportunities for NYSDEC employees to be better leaders and workers in their positions.

Both Kammerer-Cody and Meek Gallagher agree that their leadership styles differ depending on the situation and the people they are working with.  “Every person gets something different based on what they need,” Kammerer-Cody explained. “You [have to] understand what the employee responds best to, and it may take you some time to adjust to that particular leadership style.”

Meek Gallagher said her leadership at a public meeting may differ from when she is with her senior leaders.  “You have to be adaptive.”

Kammerer-Cody described her favorite boss as informed, affiliative, and able to create harmony between the diverse employees.   Meek Gallagher said her favorite boss was authoritative, a great mentor, and supportive, while her least favorite boss never listened to feedback.   Their experiences with their own bosses have influenced the way they lead their own employees.

Denise and Carrie are two accomplished women succeeding in leadership positions in the government.

 

Does being a woman affect the way you lead?

“Absolutely.”

It is common, and unfortunate, that strong and assertive men are called leaders, yet strong and assertive women are called bad names.  To avoid being perceived as abrasive, Meek Gallagher makes sure she has a sense of humor, especially when giving non-positive feedback to employees.  “I’ll try to joke about myself.  It helps people know it’s okay.”

Both women brought up the book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg.  Both make efforts to sit at the table, literally and figuratively.  Meek Gallagher says that, at meetings she “takes a seat as close to the head of the table as possible.”

“’I’m always cognizant of the number of women at the table,” said Kammerer-Cody, “and I’m usually, often times, the only one.”

 

Both women are conscious of the way they dress. 

In the office, both make sure to:

  • dress professionally
  • dress conservatively
    • have dresses and skirts at knee length
    • make sure blouses are secure
    • not show a lot of flesh

The color, length, and style of their hair have also been influenced by their work environment.  Wearing long hair pulled back, wearing hair shorter, and shying away from blonde hair have positively influenced how they are treated at work.

Referring to the author of Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office, Dr. Lois Frankel, Kammerer-Cody said, “you shouldn’t look like Friday night when dressed for Monday morning.”  Kammerer-Cody adds that dressing professionally is equally as important for men.  “You want to be seen as a confident professional.”

Despite these efforts, when inquiring about a position she was qualified for, Meek Gallagher was told she did not look like the role and would therefore not be considered for the position.

What century is it?!  This is unfortunately a situation many women will be faced with at some point in their careers.

 

What advice would they give to women, and anyone entering the workforce?

“Don’t let anyone stop you,” and “push your limits, push other people’s limits,” were Meek Gallagher’s advice.  She explained that a lot of times women limit themselves more than anything else.  “Instead of telling ourselves, ‘I don’t know, I’m a woman…,’ we should say ‘I’m just a person, with dreams and goals.’”

Kammerer-Cody advised, “You have to carry yourself the way you want to be viewed by others.”  This applies to all genders.  While your clothes should not define you, they may influence your career advancement.

She reinstates several accepted pieces of advice: do not speak to fill the silence, and ask questions when you do not understand, even when it feels inconvenient.  This advice is repeated time and time again because it is true, important, and underrated.

Kammerer-Cody’s last piece of advice?  “Pay attention in calculus, especially part two.”

Kammerer-Cody and Meek Gallagher both note that being a woman leader gets easier as they get older.  They believe their experienced and age help them gain respect in the workplace.  They also note that being a good leader takes practice.

 

To end our conversations, I asked Kammerer-Cody and Meek Gallagher what books they would recommend to women and men entering the workforce, to assist them in the work environment as well as their personal lives.

I am personally a firm believer in the importance of both self-help and fiction books, and am always looking for recommendations.  Books are a great way to escape, and a great way to continue learning and improving yourself.  Kammerer-Cody and Meek Gallagher recommended:

  • Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, by Sheryl Sandberg
  • Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office, by Dr. Lois Frankel
  • Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t, by Simon Sinek
  • Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, by Brigid Schulte
  • And anything by Pema Chödrön, a Buddhist teacher, nun, and author.

After Kammerer-Cody recommended Pema Chödrön, and because I love the idea of mindfulness and loving-kindness, I started reading her inspiring books.  Her words do not disappoint.

A couple of weeks after I sat down with Kammerer-Cody, Meek Gallagher also brought up Pema Chödrön.  When I told Meek Gallagher that Kammerer-Cody had recommended Pema Chödrön as well, and that I had started reading her books, she replied,“I guess strong women prefer Pema Chödrön.”

A lotus flower (source)

A lotus flower emerging from a murky water (source)

About Karen Baumert

Karen Baumert has a BS in Environmental Engineering from the University at Buffalo and is currently a graduate student at Bard CEP. She is working with the Army Corps of Engineers in the Economics and Cultural Resources Section as an Economic Trainee.