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How One Government Manager Plans to Get More Women in Power

Women make up nearly half of public-sector workers but just over 10 percent of city managers -- a rate that's barely budged in three decades.

Patricia Martel: "When executive leaders don't reflect their communities, the values of those communities aren't embedded in the operation."
(International City/County Management Association)
When Patricia Martel got her start in government in Inglewood, Calif., in the early 1980s, just 13 percent of American cities’ chief administrative officers were women. A lot of things have changed since then, but gender diversity isn’t one of them. According to a survey conducted last year by the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), the percentage of women city managers has barely budged in three decades. It’s now at 14.4 percent.

Martel wants to get more women to join the executive ranks. Today she’s the city manager for Daly City, Calif., and the incoming president of ICMA. She aims to use her national platform to involve more women in city management. She says she was fortunate 35 years ago to have a city manager in Inglewood who saw her potential. He offered to help groom her for an executive level position in government. “That wasn’t always the case for many women,” she says. “I was one of the lucky ones.” 

It’s not that there aren’t women working in the public sector. Women make up nearly half of the roughly 9 million noneducation workers in state and local governments. But women remain underrepresented in management and leadership roles. ICMA has formed a task force focused on women in government, whose goal is providing women better resources to advance their careers.

Part of the problem, Martel believes, is that women in her generation felt they had to prioritize work over family obligations to signal they were committed to a professional career. To many women, this was too unattractive a choice. “Many of us sacrificed family life to demonstrate we were serious about the job,” she says. “Today I wouldn’t do that. That’s what I tell young people: If your kid needs you today, go do that. Work will always be here tomorrow.”

The other key piece, says Martel, is providing role models for women who are mid-level managers. Last year’s ICMA survey noted that women who may seek to move up in their jobs often don’t have a female role model to follow. Four in 10 organizations surveyed responded that they’d never had a female chief administrative officer or chief appointed official. Martel thinks mentorship is key and points to successes in the 14 states where ICMA has established such programs. She plans to get more states involved, starting with a big push at the association’s annual conference in Seattle this month. “One of the most critical things is having a role model,” she says. “You can’t be who you can’t see.”

Despite the stagnant stats on women managers for the past generation, Martel says she’s hopeful for the future. Public policy schools, for example, are now graduating more women than men. Ultimately, she says, the goal should be a government that better mirrors the population it serves. She likens the need for more female managers to the importance of promoting racial diversity in leadership, something that’s become a touchstone in police confrontations across the country over the past year. “With some of the issues we’ve seen with law enforcement,” Martel says, “you see the evidence that when executive leaders don’t reflect their communities, the values of those communities aren’t embedded in the operation.”

Liz Farmer is a former GOVERNING fiscal policy writer.
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