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It’s Not Always a Mr. Right- Increasing the Number of Women in Local Government Leadership
Shelby Teufel, Assistant City Administrator/Finance Director, City of Pleasant Hill, MO
Much has already been written about reasons women don’t advance to leadership positions at the rate that males do, and I find so much truth behind those potential reasons and the data backing up their assumptions. I think that every career-focused female could have written these articles and books. Each piece dedicated to this topic address the same key points: parenting, family, confidence building, social norms, and a need for females to support other females.
To quote Madeleine Albright, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” I’ve never been a huge fan of this particular quote, likely on religious grounds. However, the sentiment is spot on. We should be supporting women in government, whether at their current level or encouraging them to take the step to become a city manager. We should be showing other women that female leadership also has its variations. We should be discussing and challenging the reasons holding us back.
I have been fortunate to see different leadership styles in encouraging individuals. My first local government manager was an interim female city administrator. She was fierce. She was ruthless. She was thoughtful and compassionate. She thought things through. My second local government manager had left a position as a CAO. She had high standards. She spoke her mind. She had a plan of execution and meticulous time frames. She spoke about family and opened up about the reasons she chose to leave local government but remain rooted in the community she grew to love. My third local government manager was a long serving assistant city administrator. She built trust. She was quiet but impactful. She thought about the long-term impact on the organization and community. Family mattered to her. My current administrator gives me continued faith that males can see the value of female managers. He is an eternal optimist. He is encouraging. He believes in the best in every individual and situation. He seeks the good. He wants everyone to win. He speaks with respect and concern.
My family praised my academic accomplishments. They encouraged me to pursue my passion and be the best version of myself. My parents still brag about the work I do.
Collectively, these people have led me to believe that I can do this. I can be a city manager with my own leadership style if I want to. Yet, I still find myself questioning whether that’s ultimately what I want. I hold myself at the assistant level and say, “This is good. This is comfortable. I know what I’m doing here. I’m much better with someone else telling me what to do. I’m good at execution, not as good on vision.” I start to rationalize staying content. I focus on all the reasons I’m not good. I revert back to conversations with other (mostly male) managers and say, “I hadn’t even thought of that. They must have more training/experience/knowledge/intuition than I do.” I second-guess myself. I filter my questions in a group setting at the risk of sounding ridiculous.
I don’t know if it’s the #13percent movement, the lack of females in my state, or if I’ve finally found my group of people in this profession – but I’ve found my core women. We are comfortable sharing our experiences, our questions, our doubts, and can lean on each other for advice. The thing I’ve learned is that many females share the thoughts I do. We doubt ourselves. The doubt is what holds us back from taking that next step. You need the person who is aware of your skills and personality to look you in the face, tell you what challenges lie ahead, and encourage you that you are ready. This person is extremely important and valuable to you. Surround yourself with people who can build you up when you are questioning yourself. This may sound extremely insecure. It sounds as if you are looking externally for validation. It might be. But I believe that this temporary reliance on external validation is what some of us need until we can stand on our own. Inevitably it always happens. Once we make it over the hump – once we make it past the insecurities of a change – we start to believe in ourselves again. And that is where we can start to make an impact.
Once we make it past that hump, we are on the other side looking back thinking: “Wow. That was amazing. I just did something I never thought I could make it through.” With our new found confidence we start to share our story with other women considering making that leap. We are now their encouragement. We share openly our own doubts and insecurities and what it took to come into our own (BTW, if you don’t already do this, you should start). We can serve as someone else’s temporary external validation.
A quick PSA for moms in leadership positions:
I cannot write or speak about women in government without discussing family dynamics and societal views about moms in leadership positions. My advice? Be honest with yourself about what you want in a family and what you want in your career. Make sure you can do both. Be upfront with your significant other before you commit to each other and before you have children. Find a significant other who supports you and believes that you can be successful, even if that means you spend less time at home and earn more than they do (assuming that you are ok with spending less time at home). Overlook societal remarks that a career focused female cannot be family focused at the same time. Make your moments with your loved ones matter. Incorporate your family into the work you do and (attempt to) instill a love for public service in your children. Be supportive of other mothers who struggle to juggle this motherhood/leadership dichotomy. Forgive yourself once in a while if you aren’t everything you thought you would be. Some days you will feel like you’ve let your team down at work. Some days you will feel like you’ve let your family down. Go easy on yourself. You are doing amazing on both fronts.