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The Gender Disparity in Climbing Local Government's Ladder

Women are less likely than men to aspire for and occupy top jobs. They're also less optimistic about their chances of moving up at all.

Men climbing ladders with woman standing at bottom.
How quickly are women advancing in local government? Not quickly enough, according to researchers and government officials who focus on gender equity.

Late last year, National Research Center, Inc., released data it had collected over the last five years from 20,000 local government workers in more than 40 jurisdictions. Its survey reveals some gender disparities: 39 percent of men rated their opportunities for promotion as excellent or good, compared to only 29 percent of women. And 49 percent of men rated their opportunities for career growth as excellent or good, compared to just 43 percent of women.

“This is particularly significant because women generally answer questions about their government jobs more positively than men,” according to Angelica Wedell, head of business development and communications for National Research Center. 

For instance, when asked if they would recommend their employer to others, 86 percent of women said yes, compared with 79 percent of men.  

“When women rate questions about promotions and career growth lower than their male colleagues, that needs to be paid attention to,” she says.

Data on this critical issue is sparse because state and local governments rarely publicly report the gender breakdown of promotions. Pamela Antil, co-founder of the League of Women in Government and the assistant city administrator for Santa Barbara, Calif., says the gender imbalance for promotions in the public sector has improved over time, but there’s still a massive distance to go toward equality.

Women are particularly not getting promoted to the most senior positions.

At the end of 2018, only 17.9 percent of chief administrative officers (CAOs) were women, according to the International City/County Management Association (ICMA). In 2014, though, that number was 14.4 percent. And in the mid-1970s, ICMA reported the number of female CAOs at less than 2 percent (although that figure was not limited to ICMA membership).

“There’s been progress, but I thought there would have been a lot more,” says Heidi Voorhees, co-owner of GovHR USA, a recruiting firm for local government. “We don’t have as many candidates at the top as we need. We need to promote diversity, including gender diversity, in every way. We need to identify talent and develop it.”


Why Aren't More Women in Top Government Positions?

HR leaders say it's not that women are less qualified for these jobs -- it's that many women think they aren't qualified.

“Our recruiting people have told us they’ll put out a recruitment for a city manager and the gender norm is that a lot of men will look at the position description and say, 'I have three of the 20 criteria -- I’m going for this job,'" says Antil, "and women will say, 'I only have 19 of the 20 things they’re looking for -- I don’t think I’m ready.'"

There’s also the factor of occupational segregation. Not only is leadership in local government male-dominated, but some of the major departments -- police, transportation, public works and fire -- have far more male than female employees. 

“If you’re working in K-12 education or child protective services, you’re much more likely to find women in decision-making positions than in transportation departments where you’re more likely to find men,” says Mary Guy, a University of Colorado, Denver professor, who authored a landmark study on gender issues in state government in 1992. “[But] the higher you go in any state agency, the more likely men will be the directors, and women will be in staff support or associate director positions.”

In its latest survey, ICMA also found that women were less likely than men to aspire for jobs at the top. For example, 53 percent of women said their career goal was to be the chief administrative officer -- the same was true for 72 percent of men.


'If You Can See It, You Can Be It'

There are many ways to level the playing field between men and women, but the most obvious is for elected officials to appoint more women.

“If you can see it, you can be it,” says Bonnie Svrcek, the city manager of Lynchburg, Va. In her city, women occupy the offices of the mayor, vice mayor and half of the department heads.

Having women at the top of an organization can inspire other women to seek their own advancement -- and make it more likely that they're successful.

In Oregon, where three of the five statewide elected offices are held by women, 51 percent of the promotions in the executive branch last year went to women, according to Sophorn Cheang, director of diversity, equity and inclusion for the governor’s office. 

“The more women there are in top-level positions," says Mary Guy, the professor, "the greater willingness there is to routinely authorize the hire or promotion of very skilled competent women.”

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Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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