#13Percent: It’s More Than Just A Number

Posted on April 14, 2015

Pinkos-12 72dpi-webToday’s #13Percent post is from Karen Pinkos, an ELGL member from El Cerrito, California.  Karen is is the Assistant City Manager for the City of El Cerrito. Karen’s duties include oversight of general government operations, customer service initiatives, and community partnerships and interagency collaborations.  A native of Michigan, Karen has nearly 20 years of experience in professional management, beginning her public sector career in the City of Oak Park, Michigan before coming to El Cerrito in 2001. She is passionate about local government and is dedicated to promoting professional, efficient, ethical management in California and across the country.

I’ve been engrossed by all of the responses on social media to the Women Leading Government article in January’s PM Magazine that referenced the Report from the ICMA Task Force on Women in the Profession, which I was proud and honored to be a part of.  I have been gratified and humbled by the overwhelmingly positive response to our two years of hard work, as the entire point of the Report is to shine the light on this issue and, ultimately, move the needle toward more women in local government leadership.  I must admit, though, that I do have a bit of a different take on this issue than has been previously raised in various posts and tweets on this topic, and I hope you’ll indulge my perspective.

The statistic that the number of women in CAO positions in local government has held steady at 13% for 30 years is a hugely compelling number, and one that our Report cited as a reason to create the Task Force in the first place.  There is no dispute that this needs to change, and we must work to increase the number of female CAOs in our profession. But I am uncomfortable with that statistic being the focus of the conversation.  There is so much more to the Report (in fact, if you haven’t read it, please do) and about the overall issue of women in local government that I don’t want to be lost in this discussion resulting from the PM article. 

While the number of women in CAO positions is a huge indicator of what the issues are, there is much more than the “pipeline” to the CAO office that needs attention.  As Professor Marty Linsky taught me, we must look beyond the technical problem to meet the underlying adaptive challenge, which in this case, I believe, is the issue of gender equity.  It’s a societal issue that goes beyond the workplace and certainly beyond local government, and must be addressed in the entire perspective of gender bias, including the bias perpetuated by women ourselves.  This was included within the Task Force Report’s recommendations, discussed in Rachael Fuller’s ELGL blog post, and has become an ongoing theme in the media and in academia.  It’s a reason that our profession isn’t alone: women make up half of the workforce, but only around 18% of leadership positions across all sectors.  And gender bias is everywhere: how often do you see TV commercials for cleaning products with a man mopping the floor or cleaning up the counter in the kitchen?  Why are women judged so harshly on their appearance?  Why do people remark on a man being “an involved dad,” as if that’s to be praised instead of expected?  Why do I still come across people who are surprised that I and other females have an extensive knowledge of sports? Think of all the things that we say and do and take for granted about women and men.  THAT is where the change needs to begin.

I also want this discussion to focus on women leading government at all levels, for all positions.  The Task Force was convened to examine the status of women in the profession and to make recommendations on how to advance women to senior level executive positions, meaning we need more female CAOs…but we also need more female Assistants/Deputies, department heads, and police and fire chiefs.  Going even further, we need more female analysts, more female cops and firefighters, more female interns and students.  And we, as leaders, need to make sure that we are being inclusive for all positions and making sure our organizational policies encourage this, so that the time will clearly come that many of these well-trained female leaders may just go ahead and rise to the CAO position one day.  It is true that people want to see role models that look like them; more importantly, it’s our responsibility to create opportunities for our organizations to reflect our communities.  Local government is better for having more female representation at all levels. 

Which leads to my biggest issue: that somehow this Report and the PM article could be interpreted that we only need to worry about moving the needle for CAOs…or worse, that all women should feel like they need to be CAOs in order to be considered successful.  And to paraphrase ELGL’s co-founder Kirsten Wyatt, that is what makes MY blood pressure rise and gets me extremely frustrated.

I’ve worked for the City of El Cerrito since 2001, and served as the ACM since 2006.  I am constantly asked when I’m going to become a City Manager.  My response always is, “I have a great job.”  And I do.  Great boss, great community, great co-workers, great City Council.  I love my job, I’m very happy, and my quality of life is excellent.  Will I be a CAO someday?  Absolutely.  Am I ready right now?  Definitely.  Am I scared? No way.  I am simply happy.  I’m doing important, interesting and creative work.  And I don’t need the title to fulfill my work in this profession…if my career ended tomorrow, I would not be missing a thing and would consider it a huge success. 

What I reject most is the implication that somehow I’m not “there” yet, or that I’m “next” as opposed to “now”, or that I’m not meeting someone else’s definition as to what my potential should be.  And with a focus on the CAO number, I admit I feel resentful of any implication that because I’m not seeking a CAO position right now, that I’m somehow dissing my sisters by not helping to make that number higher.  I want to be sure that, in our quest to move the needle, that we’re not unwittingly making others feel this way either.

Let’s talk about being an Assistant/Deputy for a moment, because it needs to be said: it is an amazing, excellent, desirable job, one that can be and should be aspired to.  I want this profession to recognize the importance of being excellent at every position, but the Assistant/Deputy job requires a particular skill set that can be critical to an organization’s success, and frankly to the success of the CAO.  I focused on this during a session at the ICMA Conference in Boston entitled, “It’s Good to be Number Two.”   Because, it is.  And let’s face it, not everyone can be a CAO, not everyone wants to be a CAO, and not everyone SHOULD be a CAO.  We need excellent Assistants/Deputies, and in fact, the Report cites that just 30% of Assistants/Deputies are women, so we should also look to increase that number too. 

And—this is important—you don’t need to be a CAO to be considered a leader in local government.  I’ve served my profession in multiple ways for many years, including serving on the ICMA Executive Board, chairing the ICMA Welcome Ambassadors (join us!), serving on this Task Force and several other ICMA committees, and I’m very proud to say I have served on the Boards of two of my State associations…all from the second chair.  Many of my colleagues who are out front championing the issue on women leading government, including past ICMA President Bonnie Svrcek (who created the ICMA Task Force and kickstarted this entire movement), Task Force Co-Chairs Pam Antil and Tammy Latourneau, Susan ThorpeSarah Madery, Tansy Hayward, Julie Underwoodand Kirsten Wyatt, are all currently ACM/DCMs.  Even Sheryl Sandberg of “Lean In” fame is not a CEO!  Clearly, women who lead don’t need certain titles to do so, and that is certainly true in local government.

So, that being said, and with apologies to some of my colleagues, I have decided that I won’t be using the “#13percent” hashtag that has been promoted by ELGL and Women Leading Government in my own tweets or posts.  I know, it might seem silly to care about a hashtag.  But in today’s world, social media hashtags draw attention to a movement or event.  What matters to me is the focus, and what the hashtag represents—or what it doesn’t. 

My view is that the “#13percent” keeps the focus on the negative part of our story.  Perhaps this isn’t a surprise coming from someone with a 12-year cheerleading background, but I want to improve the score, not dwell on losing; I want to cheer on my team, not boo; I want to look forward, not back.  Look, I get that local government has a long way to go toward being more inclusive.  I agree that we need to acknowledge and understand the past, draw attention to these facts and statistics, and identify gender bias, so that we can make changes to improve.  That number, frankly, sucks.  So let’s seek to make the 13% statistic (and hashtag) irrelevant.  I believe that the attention to the Task Force Report indicates that we ARE moving forward, and we can keep the momentum going.  I’ve been in local government for nearly 20 years, and the myriad of changes I’ve seen in that timeframe are tremendous.  I know that our profession is a great place to be for women, and it will keep getting even better.  I think that working in the public sector, and local government in particular, is the most important work that one could ever do.  And that despite any problems that we could name, there is so much more to celebrate, promote, and be very proud of. 

Please don’t get me wrong: I WANT the number of women in CAO positions to move well past 13%!  It’s just that increasing the number of female CAOs is one goal, not the only goal.  I also want to make sure that in working to improve that number, we understand and respect the choices that women (and men, for that matter) make about their careers.  I will never let go of my value that the local government management profession is supportive of everyone who works in an organization, and that it is imperative to promote the diversity of our members at all levels and positions.  We need to make sure that the ICMA Board, municipal associations, our state associations and the various professional affiliates and networks talk about the Report’s findings and be active in continuing the discussion of the status of all women in local government.  And I want us to never lose sight of the fact that you can be a leader in local government no matter what your title is.

I’m very optimistic that here in 2015, this and other issues on diversity and equity are genies that can’t be put back in the bottle, and our profession will keep moving forward as we are now.  And most importantly, while we must learn from the past, let’s focus on the future.  Let’s show our passion for this profession, and let’s keep telling our great success stories so that we show people why local government really is the best profession one could possibly choose.  

And despite my personal opinion on the hashtag, I am extremely happy that ELGL and Women Leading Government are focusing on this issue and continuing the conversation on women in the profession along with ICMA and other organizations.  It is true: these aren’t women’s issues, this movement impacts everyone, and I applaud the efforts of everyone who has spoken out and want you all to keep talking.  We are all on the same team, and we all want the

same thing: innovative, inclusive, excellent local government that reflects and serves our communities.  I am hugely supportive of this movement, I respect the work that all of my colleagues are doing, and I look forward to the future.  Just don’t be surprised if I use a different hashtag.  

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