Key Issues > Women and Gender in Public Policy
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Women and Gender in Public Policy

Women and gender minorities are protected under federal law, yet disparities exist in education, retirement, health, and other areas covered by federal programs.

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While federal laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, gender disparities persist in areas like education, employment and wages, retirement, and criminal justice. Some issues—such as caregiving, maternal health, and sexual harassment and violence—may affect one gender more than others. Federal agencies administer a number of programs in these areas, but agencies could more effectively design, implement, and evaluate these programs by understanding the role that gender plays.

For example:

  • The gender pay gap persists in the entire U.S. workforce, but the wage gap for federal workers is smaller (7 cents on the dollar in 2017). Most of this gap cannot be explained by measurable differences between men and women. The gap is greater for certain groups of women, including Hispanics/Latinas, Blacks, and American Indians or Alaska Natives.
  • Women are underrepresented on publicly-traded company boards—which make decisions that affect the lives of millions of people and influence the policies and practices of the global marketplace.
  • Women age 65 and over have less retirement income on average than men and are more likely to live in poverty. Women are also more likely than men to provide care for a parent or spouse, which can adversely affect their jobs, retirement assets, and income.
  • Women are still largely underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Additionally, female students in engineering and medical majors experience sexual harassment significantly more than female students in non-STEM fields. 
  • Women and racial or ethnic minorities are still underrepresented at the Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development—especially in the higher ranks—though their workforces have grown more diverse. EEOC requires some federal agencies, including State and USAID, to address workforce barriers to equal participation. 
  • Black students, boys, and students with disabilities face disproportionate discipline (e.g., suspensions and expulsions) in K-12 public schools.
  • A lack of data on sexual orientation and gender identity makes it difficult to discern trends in school bullying—especially as they relate to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) community. 
  • Every year in the United States, hundreds of women die of complications related to pregnancy and childbirth and women of color are disproportionately affected. For example, black women are more than 3 times as likely to die from childbirth as white women.

 Pregnancy-Related Deaths per 100,000 Live Births by Ethnic/Racial Group, 2007-2016

  • Federal data on sexual violence are critical to preventing, addressing, and understanding the consequences of these types of crimes. However, these data are confusing and fragmented, which may obscure the scope of the problem and hinder the understanding of sexual violence. 
  • Persons with domestic violence records are prohibited from possessing firearms. While most firearm sales were blocked after background checks detected domestic violence records from 2006-2015, about 6,700 firearms were erroneously sold to prohibited individuals due to delays in completing these checks. 
  • Human trafficking victims are often held in slave-like conditions and forced to work in areas such as the commercial sex trade, factories, and agriculture. The Departments of State and Labor, and the U.S. Agency for International Development managed 120 counter-trafficking projects in 2017. Establishing additional controls to assist in monitoring counter-trafficking in persons projects is a priority recommendation to the U.S. Agency for International Development.
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GAO-20-718T, Retirement Security: Older Women Face a Financially Uncertain Future, September 2020


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