#13Percent: Steady the Boat or Rock It

Posted on June 8, 2015

Today’s #13Percent post is written by Rebecca Olson, Assistant to the City Manager in Shoreview, MN and ELGL leader. Her interest in local government can be traced back to the University of St. Thomas where she completed her studies in Political Science, Spanish, and International Studies. After graduating she began a career in public service with the Minnesota Legislature where she served as a Legislative Assistant to a State Senator.

#13Percent: Steady the Boat or Rock It?

by Rebecca Olson: LinkedIn and Twitter
A recent report from the International City/County Management Association found that the proportion of women in leadership roles in local governments hasn’t changed in 30 years. In 1981 only 13 percent of all Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) positions were filled by women.[1] Today the percentage of women CAOs in local government remains the same.
What accounts for this gender gap in our local governments? It cannot be attributed to a disparity in education. In 2013, nationwide, 25-34 year old women were 48% more likely than men to have completed graduate school.[2]  And although women are earning graduate degrees at a higher rate than men, their wage earnings are not reflective of that. According to the White House Council of Economic Advisors’ report on ‘Women’s Participation in Education and the Workforce’, although men and women have similar earnings after completing professional school degrees, the earnings gap widens dramatically over time. By the time men are in their late 30s, they tend to earn approximately 50% more than women[3].  Women need those advanced degrees much more so than men in order to achieve the same earnings. For example, in Minnesota, women with a Master’s degree working full-time earn $4,816 less than a comparable man with a bachelor’s degree and earn just $1,184 more per year on average than men with AA degrees.[4]

That earnings gap data is striking simply because in Minnesota, women hold double the national average of CAO positions. Twenty-six percent (26%) of city manager or administrator roles are filled by women.[5]  Minnesota has a strong network of city managers, administrators and organizations that have worked to improve the representation of women in the profession. However, with 852 cities in the state of Minnesota, that means roughly only 221 cities have a woman in the top leadership role. If the earnings gap is that wide in a state with more women in a CAO role, what is the gap in states with fewer women CAOs? According to the 2010 US Census data, women make up over 50 percent of Minnesota’s population, yet they only account for a quarter of local governments’ top positions. But why is it important that women hold a representative number of these top positions?
The stagnation of female leadership in our local governments is not just a women’s issue, it is a community issue. It is not just about bringing fairness to those particular women seeking a top leadership position in the organization. It is about ensuring a high quality of life for everyone in the community. The reason it is so important to have female representation in the CAO role is because city managers are entrusted with the care of a city; acting as stewards of the community. They are responsible for helping the elected officials set the course to the future and we need to ensure multiple perspectives are represented now and in the future. As James Keene, City Manager of Palo Alto, CA, said “the deeper purpose of government, especially at the local level, (is to) establish and maintain agreements on how we are going to live together[6].” In order to find common ground it is imperative that we have a well-rounded, diversified team working together to achieve a viable social contract in our communities.
These diversified teams must be built with a variety of skill sets in order to achieve a cohesive, quality, sustainable community that represents ever changing demographics. The skills and leadership attributes of women can be substantially different than those of men. The Pew Research Center found that women are perceived as being better able to work out compromises, are more compassionate and organized, and have a perceived advantage over men when it comes to honesty. Men on the other hand are perceived to be more decisive, better able to negotiate profitable deals, and at taking risks[7]. A balance of these skill sets is instrumental to success in any organization. 
In essence, women bring different perspectives, priorities and preferences to their jobs. These differences can bring about different outcomes in policies and decisions as well. In fact, nearly 70% of Americans believe having more women in top leadership positions in business and government would improve the quality of life for all women.[8] This is an issue that permeates all of our communities.
There needs to be a conscious effort to recognize and identify barriers that may prevent women from moving into that CAO position. We must bring this message to our elected officials who are the ones making the appointments and hiring decisions for the local government CAO positions. We must educate the executive search firms and encourage them to seek out a variety of female candidates who may have an ‘assistant’ or some other title but plenty of experience. We must continue to address the small things in our daily conversations that unconsciously create barriers for women. We should encourage women already in CAO roles to become more visible and identifiable and promote women mentorship programs. We need to start with an honest dialogue about the data and the impact it has on our communities.
13percentMorpheusI recently began bringing up this issue with colleagues to bring awareness to the disparity in leadership positions. The discussions centered on how as local government professionals, we could push back against this 13 percent statistic and create momentum for change. As I thought about these conversations, the words “Push Back” stuck in my head. I’m not usually one to sit quietly on the sidelines if something is bothering me, and yes, the 13 percent statistic does bother me. However, if I was honest with myself, those words scared me. It made me realize that I am more likely to be the one who steadies the boat, rather than rocks it. I am the type of person who believes that hard work pays off and I just need to continue to work hard…and wait for change to happen. I have been content to let others be the change-makers, the ones out in front of the cause while I support them as best I can behind the scenes.
But I couldn’t get those two simple words out of my head. Those words made me realize that if I want things to change, I can’t just sit by and wait. I need to push back, to transform my fear into excitement. I now have those words hanging on my wall at work. It is a reminder that I don’t have to sit by and wait. I can choose to make an impact now. I can begin the conversation, bring awareness and offer suggestions on how we can increase the proportion of women in CAO roles. If we all choose to push back just a little we can continue to work to bring balance, equity and a variety of experience, viewpoints and skill sets to our profession. This can only be accomplished through cooperation and an honest dialogue. Although I am incredibly proud of the work that is being done in my state and the fact that Minnesota has a higher female representation in the profession than the 13% national figure, there is still work to be done. Our organizations and communities will be better served when we identify quality leaders based on skill, experience, and vision, rather than gender.


Center on Women & Public Policy in partnership with the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota. (2014). Status of Women & Girls in Minnesota. Minneapolis: University of MN Humphrey School. http://www.wfmn.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/2014SWGM_Final.pdf
Funkhouser, M. (2013, January 31). The Real Role of cities. Governing: The States and Localities . http://www.governing.com/gov-institute/funkhouser/col-jim-keene-city-manager-palo-alto-california-role-cities.html
Pew Research Center. (2015). Women and Leadership: Public Says Women are Equally Qualified, but Barriers Persist. Pew Research Center. http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/files/2015/01/2015-01-14_women-and-leadership.pdf
Voorhees, H., & Lange-Skaggs, R. (2015, Jan/Feb). Women Leading Government: Why So Little Progress in 30 years? PM Magazine . http://icma.org/en/press/pm_magazine/article/105323
White House Council of Economic Advisors. (2014). Women’s Participation in Education and the Workforce. https://s3.amazonaws.com/s3.documentcloud.org/documents/1350163/women_education_workforce.pdf
[1] (Voorhees & Lange-Skaggs, 2015)
[2] (White House Council of Economic Advisors, 2014)
[3] (White House Council of Economic Advisors, 2014)
[4] (Center on Women & Public Policy in partnership with the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, 2014)
[5] (Center on Women & Public Policy in partnership with the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, 2014)
[6] (Funkhouser, 2013)
[7] (Pew Research Center, 2015)
[8] (Pew Research Center, 2015)

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