Before becoming a public official, Achtenberg worked for more than 15 years as a civil rights attorney, nonprofit director and legal educator.
Achtenberg unsuccessfully ran for a seat in the California State Assembly in 1988. She was elected as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1990 and resigned in 1993 when she was appointed Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development by President Bill Clinton. Her confirmation was famously held up by Senator Jesse Helms who refused to vote for her "because she's a damn lesbian." Achtenberg left the post in 1995 to run for mayor of San Francisco. She served as Senior Vice President for Public Policy at the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce until January 2005. In 2000, she was appointed to the Board of Trustees of California State University by Governor Gray Davis, becoming chair of the Board in May 2006.
Achtenberg's father immigrated to the United States from the former Soviet Union, while her mother came from Quebec.
After graduating from Morningside High School in Inglewood, California, Achtenberg went to UCLA, then transferred to and graduated from University of California, Berkeley. She began law school in San Francisco at University of California, Hastings College of the Law, before transferring to and receiving her Juris Doctorate from the University of Utah.
Achtenberg has a son, Benjie, whom she raised with her former partner, Mary C. Morgan.
- 2003, awarded the first ever Public Administration Program Award for Public Service by San Francisco State University in recognition of Achtenberg's outstanding career in public service
- 1997, one of the "50 Most Influential Businesswomen in the Bay Area"
- 1994, GLAAD Media Awards, Visibility Award
- Founders Award from the National Center for Lesbian Rights
- Sexual Orientation and the Law, by Roberta Achtenberg (editor) (1985) ISBN 978-0-87632-454-7
- The Lesbian and Gay Book of Love and Marriage: Creating the Stories of Our Lives, by Paula Martinac, Roberta Achtenberg (contributor) (1998) ISBN 978-0-7679-0162-8
- Helping Gay and Lesbian Youth: New Policies, New Programs, New Practice, by Teresa Decrescenzo (editor), Roberta Achtenberg (contributor) (1994) ISBN 978-1-56023-057-1
- Senate Confirmation Roll Call Vote
- Roberta Achtenberg on glbtq.com