Why We Need More Women Running Our Local Governments

The numbers have improved, but they need to be a lot better. It's about organizational success.
November 13, 2015
Members of Austin, Texas' female-dominated City Council listen to City Manager Marc Ott. (AP/Eric Gay)
By Pamela W. Antil  |  Contributor
Assistant city administrator of Santa Barbara, Calif., and president of the League of Women in Government
By Tamara S. Letourneau  |  Contributor
Assistant chief executive officer of Costa Mesa, Calif., and treasurer of the League of Women in Government

When it comes to the number of women at the top level of our local governments, it might seem that things have gotten better. In a sense they have: Far more local-government chief administrative officer positions -- city and county managers -- are held by women today than a few decades ago. That's good news, but for our local governments to perform as well as they should, a lot more progress is going to be needed.

Back in 1974, the executive board of the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) formed a task force to address the low number of female chief executives. The Task Force on Women in the Profession submitted its final report in 1976, and the numbers were eye-opening. At that time, women made up about half of the municipal government workforce but only 1.3 percent of chief administrative officer (CAO) positions. It shouldn't be surprising that, as a result, many women, including those with advanced public-administration degrees, were leaving local government to seek more opportunity in the private sector.

In 2012, 36 years later, ICMA President Bonnie Svrcek called for volunteers for a new task force to determine the current status of women in the profession and further the work done in the 1970s to remove pre- and post-entry barriers, advance women to senior-level positions and provide greater gender equality - both in pay and opportunities for advancement - to those already in the profession.

We chaired that task force and were among the co-authors of its report issued last year. We found that, while progress had been made, the numbers remained discouraging: By 2003, only 12 percent of the nation's city and county managers were women. Ten years later, that number had risen to 19.8 percent, only to sink again to 14.4 percent the following year when the task force report was published in 2014.

But there's more to the story than issues of gender parity. As our research began, we asked ourselves some questions: Does the stagnant number of women CAOs matter as it pertains to organizational success? Can local government run well regardless of who is seated in the CAO and other senior-executive positions? Our research showed that the lack of gender diversity and women in senior-level positions could very well be hindering government organizations from reaching peak performance.

Specifically, the research we reviewed showed that, across the public and private sectors, organizations that have achieved a more equitable gender balance have experienced greater organizational success. Gender balance was found to be the key driver of innovation. We also found that gender balance in the top position -- the chief executive -- is crucial to setting the tone for the organization as a whole. In organizations with few women in power, gender roles were more stereotypical and therefore more problematic. With no or few women in positions of power, gender persisted as a salient factor with negative consequences for women throughout an organization despite balanced representation in non-managerial roles.

So what's to be done? We need to move the needle forward not only on the number of women serving at the most senior and executive levels but in all areas of local government -- from administration to public works to planning to public safety -- by supporting, mentoring, and encouraging them, as well as educating elected officials about spotting and overcoming gender bias, issues of workplace gender balance, and the importance of considering women for chief executive positions.

State public-management women's groups are working with ICMA to implement the task force's recommendations. And a new national group, the League of Women in Government, has been created to serve as an umbrella organization to support local and statewide organizations. Clearly, we have a lot of work to do. As local governments face challenges that were unimagined back when just 1.3 percent of them were run by women, much is at stake.