Women’s History Month: The Story of Women at GAO

For Women’s History Month, we’ve blogged about our work on women’s issues.

Today, we’re sharing a glimpse of the story (past and present) of women at GAO.

Employees of GAO’s Check Accounting Division, 1924

In 1921, GAO had 1,708 employees. Like the federal government in general, GAO’s workforce grew during World War II to more than 14,000 at its peak in 1946. Women accounted for a large part of this federal hiring, and over 60% of GAO employees at war’s end were women, mostly in clerical positions, with some notable exceptions.

The GAO workforce shrank after the war, and the proportion of women dropped, too. The nature of the work became more professional, requiring degrees and training in accounting and auditing. Comptroller General Lindsay Warren’s executive officer is on record in early 1945 as saying, “Practically any position in the office is available for women, if they can make the grade; that is, they are not stopped because they happen to be women.” However, in that postwar period, women were generally less likely to pursue the training required, if they were even in the workforce at all.

GAO leadership at the time also expressed reluctance to assign women to “comprehensive audit work” because of complications that might arise with travel, and because of leadership’s beliefs regarding how other government agencies might perceive women auditors.

In her own words

As part of an oral history project, three women (two attorneys and one administrative assistant, shown right) spoke about their thoughts and experiences as GAO employees in the office of General Counsel and the Transportation Division. The transcript of the interview was published in 1990 and chronicles the realities of being a working woman—or rarer still, a woman attorney—from the 1940s through the 1980s.

One of the women interviewed, Ms. Rubar, described working at GAO during the war years:

And, of course, the men weren’t used to working with women except when the women were in a subservient capacity, and they found it a little bit difficult, I think.

Later, Ms. Rubar earned her law degree. However, she initially didn’t apply to work as an attorney for the agency. As she described the situation,

…[the Associate General Counsel] knew when I passed the bar, and he said that was wonderful, but he said to tell me not to think I was ever going to come to work in the General Counsel’s office because that office will never have a woman… There had been a woman, apparently a long time before, who had been extremely difficult, and, of course, men could be difficult and get away with it in those times, but women could not.

However, she ultimately got the job. She told the historian, Dr. Roger Trask, that Elmer Staats, the Comptroller General at the time, was “wonderful.”

I think he did a great deal to help women and minorities and to try to eradicate any kind of prejudice that existed…I just felt very proud of working for him.

One of the best places to work

And he and other subsequent GAO leaders continued to push for change. In 1987, 39% of employees at GAO were women—and less than 10% of our executives. Fewer than 1 in 5 women at GAO that year had a graduate or advanced degree.

Today, women comprise well over half of the staff at the agency, and fill 40% of our executive positions. Nearly 60% have a graduate or advanced degree and two different women have served as General Counsel, the top attorney at the agency.

We even received a nod from The Washington Post in October for some of these numbers, and for consistently being rated one of the Best Places to Work in the federal government.

You can learn more about GAO’s history—our building, our name, and past Comptrollers General, on the WatchBlog and also by checking out the history section of our website.

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What’s in Your Water?

photo of federal land and waterIn honor of today’s World Water Day, we are taking a look at our work on combined sewer overflows in cities with declining populations—and the serious wastewater problem they pose.

Combined sewer systems collect stormwater runoff, domestic sewage, and industrial wastewater into one pipe. During heavy rain or snow storms, the volume of this wastewater can exceed capacity, causing these systems to release excess, untreated wastewater directly into nearby water bodies.

This wastewater often has pathogens, bacteria, and other pollutants, which hurts water quality. We recently looked at the capacity of cities with declining populations to address this major source of water pollution, as well as other infrastructure needs. Today’s WatchBlog discusses what we found.

Wastewater needs…

The EPA estimates that water and wastewater utilities across the United States plan to spend about $655 billion over 20 years to maintain, upgrade, or replace major water infrastructure.

For wastewater in particular, 859 cities (primarily in the Northeast and Midwest) have combined sewer systems, and EPA estimates that planned projects to prevent or control combined sewer overflows—such as building holding tanks or tunnels—will cost about $48 billion over the next 20 years.

…and challenges

However, we found that declining populations are making it challenging for cities to pay for these types of infrastructure improvements.

Figure 1: Location of U.S. Cities with 2010 Populations of 50,000 and Greater That Experienced a Decline in Population from 1980 to 2010

(Excerpted from GAO-16-785)

Many midsize and large cities—i.e., those with 50,000 to over 100,000 people—have lost a substantial percentage of their populations. For example, 674 midsize and large cities had a 2010 population greater than 50,000, but 15 percent of them had experienced population declines from 1980 to 2010. Most of these cities are in the Midwest and Northeast.

These cities must deal with a decline in utility revenues from a loss of ratepayers, which makes it more difficult to address their water infrastructure needs.

Green infrastructure could help

According to wastewater utilities we spoke with, green technologies and practices—known as green infrastructure—are a potentially less costly approach to controlling stormwater and reducing the risks of combined sewer overflows.

Green infrastructure uses practices such as vegetated areas, stormwater collection, and permeable pavements to enhance storage, infiltration, and reuse of stormwater.

For example, some wastewater utilities we looked at are considering using vacant lands for green infrastructure to help control stormwater runoff that can lead to sewer overflows.

For more information on wastewater management, check out our latest report.

  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact Alfredo Gómez, Director, Natural Resources and Environment at gomezj@gao.gov.
  • Comments on GAO’s WatchBlog? Contact blog@gao.gov.
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Transportation Security of Radioactive Sources (podcast)

GAO Podcast IconSince September 11, 2001, concerns have been raised that medical, industrial, and research related radioactive materials could be stolen by terrorists and used to create a “dirty bomb.” As such, transportation security of high-risk radioactive materials is particularly important, and multiple federal agencies work to protect them when they’re on the road.

A team led by Shelby Oakley, a director in our Natural Resources and Environment team, recently reviewed the security of radioactive materials during ground transport. Listen to what they found:


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Planning of Metrorail’s SafeTrack Projects (podcast)

GAO Podcast IconIn response to serious safety concerns regarding Washington, DC’s Metrorail system, in May 2016 the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority started SafeTrack—a large-scale rehabilitation project. Along with addressing immediate safety concerns, SafeTrack was intended to tackle a backlog of track maintenance projects.

A team led by Mark Goldstein, a director in our Physical Infrastructure team, recently looked at the SafeTrack project, and safety and oversight issues with DC’s Metrorail. Listen to what they found:


  • Comments on GAO’s WatchBlog? Contact blog@gao.gov.
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What’s in the Air Force A-10’s Future?

Figure 1: A-10 from the Maryland Air National Guard's 104th Fighter SquadronOne of the most contentious issues in the defense budget debates over the last three years has been the fate of the Air Force’s A-10 attack jet—a.k.a “the warthog.”

Will (or should) the A-10 survive to fight another day? Today’s WatchBlog looks at the trade-offs involved in divesting from the A-10.

Tough questions for the Air Force Continue reading

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Domestic Abuse and Firearms

Today’s WatchBlog looks at another GAO report—in this case, regarding FBI’s firearm background check system and domestic violence records. We examined this issue at the request of Congress, and today we share some of what we found about the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), and the challenges of conducting checks that involve domestic violence records. Continue reading

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Women’s History Month

GAO logoMarch is Women’s History Month, so we’re taking the opportunity to look at some of our recent work on a range of issues affecting women. Read on for what we’ve found about women in combat, corporate boards, clinical trials, and more.

Women in combat Continue reading

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GAO Translations: Reaching New Audiences

thumbnail international affairsThe federal government operates programs and provides assistance all over the world—and evaluating them can require foreign language skills. We will also, on occasion, issue summaries or full versions of our work in translation.

For this week’s National Foreign Language Week, today’s WatchBlog shares some of our works in translation.

Academic freedom in U.S. universities in China (Chinese) Continue reading

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Fighting to Protect Wildlife

Figure 7: Elephant in Ruaha National Park, TanzaniaToday is World Wildlife Day. To commemorate, the WatchBlog takes a look at the illegal trafficking of animals—like elephants and rhinos—that are on the brink of extinction.

What’s it worth?

The trade in illegal wildlife brings in anywhere from $7 to $23 billion a year.  Continue reading

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Data Challenges Contribute to Billions in Medicaid Improper Payments (podcast)

GAO Podcast IconFederal Medicaid administrators rely on state-reported data to help with oversight activities, such as determining whether the program is paying eligible providers for covered services. Given that Medicaid made an estimated $36 billion in payment errors in 2016, many question the quality of these data.

A team led by Carolyn Yocom, a director in our Health Care team, recently looked at the quality of state-reported Medicaid data. Listen to what they found:


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