#13Percent: Recognizing Privilege

Ben Bryant is the Deputy City Manager for the City of Happy Valley, OR. 

By Ben Bryant (LinkedInBen

Hi! My name is Ben and this is my first ever blog post! Addressing the lack of women who are in the top administrative job in local government is a worthy topic at an important juncture in our profession.  However, it’s daunting to offer my thoughts on a subject matter of which I have much to learn.  Nevertheless, let me touch on three important aspects of this conversation based on my experience.

Recognizing Privilege

First, let me acknowledge that I have been incredibly privileged to get to where I am today.  Not only have I been blessed in life through a positive and supportive network of friends and family, but I was privileged to have grown up in a public service driven family with a father and mentor who was a city manager.  As a high schooler, our dinner table conversations centered around municipal bonds, infrastructure development, and labor relations.  Unfortunately (or fortunately), not everyone had this advantage.  Particularly, a vast majority of women didn’t get this experience because they were often pressured to have other interests as teenaged girls.  Moving beyond the #13Percent movement, many minorities and people who grew up in poverty-stricken households similarly didn’t get the same opportunities. For me, recognizing my own privilege is important.  It forces me to listen so that I may better understand others who have not had comparable advantages.  Most importantly, it challenges me to utilize my experiences to create opportunities for others.

My Experience Working for Women

Continuing the theme of privilege, I have had the honor of working for women nearly my entire career.  In four out of the five cities I’ve worked, I reported to women.  Two of the five had women city managers (#40Percent).  There are countless articles and numerous research papers that highlight the leadership traits most commonly found in women.  At the risk of generalizing and attributing personality traits solely to the fact that they were women, I want to provide a few of my own takeaways of the unique leadership attributes from the women city managers (and assistants) who have mentored me.  Beyond being dedicated and intelligent, they are savvy public servants with a keen ability to anticipate the impacts of and reactions to decisions.  Their inquisitiveness and inclusiveness creates a safe environment that allows others to admit to not knowing the answer and to ask questions.  Along those same lines, they lack ego and employees never feel the need to impress that they know more than they really do. At the same time, they possess confidence in themselves and their colleagues.  Most importantly, they care about the individuals who work in the organization and express it by finding time to sit down one-on-one with employees.  Somehow, they do all of this, while placing extreme importance on life at home.

The #87 Need to Play a Role

87Lastly, I want to highlight the import role men play in supporting women executives.  When I was studying at Willamette University, there was a significant movement aimed at adding diversity and improving social justice on campus.  As a private liberal arts university in Salem, Oregon, the student body and faculty lacked diversity.  The conversation seeking change took a front seat following racially charged actions by a few students around Halloween.  While much of the conversation centered on race, the experience left me with a profound lasting lesson that is applicable to the #13percent movement.  It’s that society can’t leave positive change just to those who stand to benefit.

At the time of this challenging time at Willamette, the University President was African-American.  As soon as racial tensions rose, many students (myself included), expected the president to weigh in on the conversation.  When time passed without his input, students began to wonder why he hadn’t provided guidance on ways to improve racial relations and social justice. Given his power as the University President and life experiences, it was assumed that he was in a unique position to guide Willamette past this particular incident and instill greater racial understandings.  When we asked why he hadn’t spoken out against the derogatory actions, he responded simply with pointing out the fact that if he were to get involved, it would be perceived as self-serving as a person of color.  Indeed, it was going to take people who looked like me to set the standard, hold people accountable, and pursue social justice.  Likewise with the #13percent movement, it will take the male leaders in our profession to utilize our privilege and platform to welcome, empower, and support women seeking the top management roles.  For they represent some of the best leaders I know.

  • Laura Crandall

    I am finishing up my MPA and I have six years of experience as the Executive Director of a nonprofit–a Preschool-Grade 8 school. I’m trying hard to get into local government, and my goal is to be a City Manager. I’m looking for a position as a Management Analyst or Assistant City Manager, or Assistant to the City Manager. I hear a lot about the 13%, but I have to say, I haven’t yet gotten a call back from anything I’ve applied for. I’m networking hard, but I can’t help but feel that people are talking about hiring women into leadership but they just aren’t doing it. My experience is different than a life-long government worker, that’s true. But I bring a lot of capacity in skills that aren’t teachable. Any tips?

    • Rob C

      Definitely explore a program like the Local Government Management Fellowship (icma.org/lgmf) – we’ve seen a near equal number of men and women entering the profession through post-MPA fellowships (not just ICMA’s): http://bit.ly/1NrP6NA. Also, joining professional groups like ELGL, ICMA and the state manager’s association will provide you networking opportunities to get yourself known.

      I spoke to a recent MPA last year, and she had applied to jobs in every sector. One comment stuck with me – she had heard back from all of the non-profits, but none of the local governments. A lot of communities still have very arcane HR and hiring policies that don’t keep up with the pace of today’s competition. I had an intern a few years ago, and she received a call from a Federal internship to see if she was interested, more than a year after she had applied. Relying on an application alone is not sufficient. You will greatly increase your chances if you know someone at a senior level in the organization that you can contact to let them know you’ve applied. If they know you, and know your work, you will be more likely to be invited to interview.

      The 13% statistic applies to the CAO level, but you can see from the research that the picture is brighter at the lower levels (see the graph at http://bit.ly/1NrRvYD). Department head 30%, Assistant CAO 34%, Assistant-to-CAO 53%. Some executive recruiters have agreed with the assumption that when the boomer retirements increase (and they are already) we should see some positive movement at the CAO level, maybe even dramatic. The challenge remains to blow up those stats at the senior level, and continuing to raise awareness is critical. Kudos to ELGL for that.

      Nice article, Ben!

      • Laura Crandall

        Thanks, Rob. I’m working on my LGMF app right now. One of the things that I find frustrating is the idea that people need to know someone at a senior level. I think government closes itself off to a lot of good talent this way, and it also means that the hiring process is still to some degree ‘who you know’, which is not a level playing field. Fortunately, I have the luxury of time to make connections and network very hard, and I know that it will pay off in the end. I’m doing all the right things by attending conferences, joining the appropriate orgs, etc. Someday!

        • Rob C

          It is frustrating, but that’s not unique to government. Our babysitter graduated last year and secured her job by using her network with senior management to help her application get noticed. This was a private sector company. My first post-undergrad job was also in the private sector, and networking got me to the top of the pile through connections I had in my professional association (PRSA at the time). And it doesn’t have to be at the most senior level – many organizations, local governments included, have employee referral programs. Or they may be small enough where staff recommendations help the HR folks manage the applications. So use who you know! Folks with an inside track often know about upcoming positions before they’re posted. You might meet someone at a conference (say, ELGL15), they know you’re graduating, and could feed you info about a position they hear about in another community.

          But who you know only gets you noticed. What you know and how you present yourself it what gets you the job. But sometimes, getting noticed is the biggest hurdle.

          And getting the first position is the toughest – so keep up your hard work!

        • Carmen

          Laura how’s the job search going? It’s been 3 months-has anything come through yet?

          • Laura Crandall

            Hi Carmen. Right now I have two jobs! But neither of them are as an employee of local government. I have a six-month position as an Interim Head of School, which was my old career. My second job is working as the Project Manager for the City of Burien’s strategic plan–that’s a contract position. I’m hoping to hear from the LGMF this month–hoping they tell me I’m a finalist. If not, I’ll continue applying and building my consulting business. Would love to run a city, though!

    • Grant Whitley

      I’ve had a similar experience as an 11-year state government manager who just earned an MPA and is looking to move into local government management. I’ve applied for well over 50 positions in local government at all levels and have not had a single interview. I was a finalist for the ICMA LGMF and did not receive any callbacks from that, either.

      Networking can be tough for those of us in rural areas, not just because there are fewer opportunities, but because the contacts that we are able to make often are not in a position to hire.

      • Laura Crandall

        Grant, thanks for sharing your experience on the hiring front. I am fortunate that I have an abundance of government around me, so hopefully something will stick. Best of luck to you, and thank you for your story.

      • Rob C

        That is certainly a challenge. And we have an issue with the LGMF if
        candidates, and we have many, who are geography-bound. Most candidates
        that are offered Fellowships relocate. Most, though not all. Just so you
        know, as a finalist your file is eligible for two years – so you can be
        considered this year as well. You can email me directly if you have questions – rcarty@icma.org.