#13Percent: Culture Clash
I am lucky to have been surrounded by strong, capable women my entire life. I was molded by these women to be confident in my abilities and unafraid to share my opinions and stand up for what I believe. I was inspired as I watched them work all day, attend their kids’ school functions, and still make dinner multiple nights each week. Because of the many great women in my life, I have never doubted that I can achieve any goal or be anything I wanted. In addition to the women I knew personally, I have also mostly been in women-dominated work environments, which shaped my perception on women in the workplace. So in grad school I was intrigued and somewhat surprised by conversations about the lack of women in leadership, particularly in city and county management positions, and how so many women continue to feel limited by glass ceilings and social expectations of what their roles should be. Of course I understood the historic struggles for women’s rights, and the persisting issue of unequal pay, and pressures to balance career and family, etc., but my experiences to that point made it difficult to fully relate.
Therefore, as a student thinking about a possible career in local government, I spent time observing the culture of local government management, which gave me a greater understanding of why conversations like #13Percent are so important. The local government culture didn’t always feel welcoming to diversity—of appearance or thought. This was particularly noticeable at conferences where the old boys’ club atmosphere allowed speakers to make insensitive jokes that gave me pause as a woman and person of color. Or, when I interned for a woman manager and she was criticized by an elected official because she recommended an improved health care plan for county employees. He said she only wanted the plan because she had children and wanted the more expensive plan for them—a point that probably would not have been made to a man. These examples and others illustrate culturally embedded issues and expectations that are often unfavorable for women—a problem not unique to local government.
When I think about my observations, the expectations of local government managers, in particular, and lessons I’ve learned from women I know, I come up with three points that may be helpful for other aspiring leaders navigating work cultures and expectations:
- Figure out what’s most important to you and don’t beat yourself up for saying “no.“ We often put a lot of pressure on ourselves to do everything from working out every day to volunteering with 10 different organizations. At some point, we have to say “no” in order to maintain effectiveness and to avoid burn out. Saying “no” can be difficult in a profession like local government management where the job is 24/7. Women leaders I know in local government management and in other positions and sectors have clear priorities and are deliberate about choosing any extra commitments. See this #ELGLWorkLife column for tips on not wavering from your priorities.
- Have good support both personally and professionally. This one is pretty self-explanatory. The women leaders I know have great support systems including partners, families and friends who help keep them grounded in what’s important to them (comes in handy when saying “no”). For me, it’s been great to develop friendships with women at similar points in their careers to bounce ideas off of, vent frustrations to, and to be each other’s cheerleaders.
- Share your wisdom. I truly value learning about the paths taken by people I admire. When others share their experiences with me I’m reminded that there’s no one best way to achieve success. It would be great if there was a space in the workplace to bring women and other affinity groups together to create support systems and discuss the unique effects of certain issues and policies on these groups.
Other organizations can learn from ELGL’s #13Percent conversations, which illustrate the desire for more discussion on gender and diversity in local government and more broadly. Continue to use your voices—it’s working to bring attention to the lack of diversity in leadership and opening up conversations that can lead to improved work cultures for everyone.