Public Workforce

City Hall Ceiling

You can find women at the top in urban government, but not many.
by | December 2006

Women won six of last month's gubernatorial elections, and come January, nine of the 50 states will be under the control of female chief executives. But here's a puzzling question: If voters are becoming more accustomed to women governors, why are there still so few women mayors?

Women are currently in charge in only 35 of the 243 U.S. cities with more than 100,000 residents, including just 12 of the 100 largest. They do pretty well at getting elected to city councils, holding nearly one-third of the council seats in the 100 largest cities, according to the Center for Women and American Politics at Rutgers University. You might think that there would be a natural progression up to the mayoral suite. But it doesn't seem to work that way.

In fact, suggests Debbie Walsh, director of the Rutgers Center, doing well at the council level actually presents something of a hurdle to women seeking to move up. "Legislative positions kind of fit well with the stereotype of how women work," she says. "They work well with others and work collectively, as opposed to being a chief executive." Indeed, several of the most prominent women mayors, including those in Dallas, Sacramento and Kansas City, preside over council-manager governments, where the day-to-day administration of city business is in someone else's hands.

The current crop of women governors all had the advantage of some form of prior executive experience, whether as state attorneys general, lieutenant governors or, in two cases, as mayors. So there was a career ladder that they could climb, demonstrating managerial competence along the way. The local level doesn't present nearly as wide a variety of opportunities, making women vulnerable, whether fairly or not, to complaints that they lack the executive background to run a city. Even where women do serve as executives in local government, in jobs such as city attorney or chief financial officer, says Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, they rarely attract the public exposure they need when setting their sights on the top job.

Too often, Franklin concludes, women simply are not given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to making the leap from legislative to executive leadership. That becomes a self-perpetuating problem. "Whenever you are not represented," she says, "people aren't accustomed to seeing you in that role."


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