#13Percent: Local Government Management Isn’t for the Faint of Heart

Posted on November 14, 2017

Heidi York, Person County, NC, County Manager, shares her experience in the “Continuing the #13Percent Conversation.” Sign up to be guest writer for this series.

I continue to see and hear the question posed of why are there so few female managers leading in local government organizations.  This question is everywhere.  And yet, if you want to know the answer, ask those comprising the 13% or as ICMA has reported in 2012, that percentage of females serving as chief administrative officers is now 15%.  Being that I have been in that percentage for nearly ten years now, I’d like to offer my perspective on the challenges of raising that percentage and why the number of female local government managers is not greater.

While I certainly appreciate the multitude of MPA students, the PhDs and academics inquiring and analyzing data on this topic, the answer seems so simple to those of us who have felt alone as female managers, leaders, and trailblazers in this arena.  This job is hard.  It requires sacrifices, most of which you won’t realize until after you have made them.  I cannot think of many other careers where you are constantly under scrutiny, constantly justifying and explaining what it is that you do, being accountable to multiple bosses, reading about yourself and the decisions you made and overhearing the general public discussing your performance, meanwhile, keeping up with the day to day demands which vary significantly by the hour.

As a woman, you are then potentially also balancing the competing demands of a being a spouse and a mother, being a caregiver, a homemaker, a taxi to children’s activities, and a friend.  As a human, you also have to find time to take care of yourself, to eat, to workout, to sleep, to socialize, to network. It is utterly exhausting.

Local government management is not for the faint of heart.  Then you introduce the at-will status of employment by political elected bosses, constantly keeping managers on their toes and you have a recipe for a high-stress life.  It’s not difficult to understand why 37.2% of assistant chief administrative officers are female.  You decrease some of the scrutiny and publicity and you take away the fear of losing one’s job for reasons not related to performance and that starts feeling a little more secure, a little more manageable.  So it is not just the career that is demanding and difficult, it is also the personal aspects that just weed out most of us from being able to take the lead as CAOs.

I have had some fabulous mentors throughout my seventeen year career and I hold them in the highest regard.  And while they can and do help me navigate the professional role, all of them have had stay-at-home wives taking care of the kids, the meals, the personal errands.  I’ve never had a female mentor; I don’t even know a female leader to connect with in a mentor role, so I have to admit therein lies a shortage but I know exactly why that is… we do not have the capacity on our overloaded plates to fully mentor others.  Often times there isn’t room for taking care of ourselves, let alone shepherding others embarking on this highly demanding career.

To me, the real progress in our career field is not the number of women choosing to serve as CAOs, instead it is the number of women receiving degrees in higher education- masters, doctorates, etc.  This measure demonstrates that women have the tools and abilities to access any career that they wish.  They are simply choosing professional roles that allow them to achieve balance with other goals and competing needs in their lives.  This is success, this is progress.

Let’s stop focusing on the 15% and instead embrace the fact that the majority of masters of public administration programs are overwhelmingly filled with females…they are choosing different roles and the ability to choose any professional role is empowerment.

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