Partnering to Create Gender Parity

Some steps cities can take to increase female representation in local government.
January 8, 2019 AT 11:00 AM
By Lisa Wong  |  Senior Fellow, Governing Institute
Lisa Wong is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and former mayor of Fitchburg, Mass.
Broadly Partnered

That there are now a record 127 women serving in the new Congress may distract us from the dismal numbers related to gender parity in municipal government. Less than 15 percent of top officials at the local level are female -- a number that has not changed significantly for some time. Governing wrote about this issue a few years ago, citing mentorship as a way to encourage more women to seek top-level jobs. Increased enrollment in public policy programs is a promising sign that more women are entering the field.

Though training and mentoring can be effective tools, research suggests that explicit gender biases also play a role. The International City-County Management Association (ICMA) conducted a study in 2014 on the status of women in the local government profession, indicating that inappropriate treatment and harassment that most women surveyed faced could have a "possible chilling effect on attracting and retaining highly qualified employees."

Under-representation of women at the local level matters. According to Mirya R. Holman's essay, Women in Local Government: What We Know and Where We Go from Here, in the State and Local Government Review, "women's representation in local office also has the potential to shape policy outcomes" and "women's representation in a police force is positively associated with increased reporting and arrests for sexual assault."

In addition, fewer women at the local level often leads to fewer women in higher offices, as local government can serve as a stepping stone to other positions.

There needs to be a proactive approach to address the lack of women in top jobs in government, as well as the obstacles and issues that exacerbate the cause. One option is for cities to partner with nonprofits, private organizations, academic institutions and other levels of government – which they have successfully done to tackle other tough issues like homelessness, gun violence and opioid abuse.

While former Governor Mitt Romney received some flak for touting his "binders full of women" on the 2012 Presidential campaign trail, this was actually an example of successful partnering to achieve gender parity. The binders of women’s resumes were compiled by the Massachusetts Womens' Political Caucus, a nonpartisan organization aimed at getting more women to run for office, and MassGap, a bipartisan group to promote women to senior leadership positions in state government.

Proactively partnering with organizations that can conduct outreach, research, advocacy and recruitment activities, as well as hold leaders and government accountable, will go a long way in addressing parity. Organizations like Vote Run Lead and Emerge have been successful in recruiting and training women to run for office. A similar model could be effective in helping to increase the number of women in appointed positions as well. Its time for cities to act on this important issue.