My Life Has Been Shaped By Powerful Women
“I don’t consider myself an anything-ist, but my life has been shaped by powerful women.” I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Ron Swanson is the man.
Welcome to the ever-growing 13 percent conversation focused on improving the lack of diversity in local government. Some of us are new to the conversation; or out of practice. Some of us may be worried about putting the proverbial “foot in the mouth” while sharing your opinion of gender and race in the workplace. Some of us may be worried that attempts to join the conversation will appear condescending, misguided or misinformed. Some of us may be more inclined, for various reasons, to applaud from the sidelines rather than participate in the conversation.
But, trust me, as I learned the hard way playing junior varsity baseball in high school, the sidelines are an unbearably and unproductive place to be.
My Frame of Reference
My entire life I’ve been surrounded by women in leadership roles. My mom managed a battered women’s shelter when I was a toddler then served as Downtown Development Authority Director and Art Gallery Curator (at the same time) in my hometown of Lapeer, MI. My little sister is currently serving as President of Students for Free Thought at U of M Flint (as a freshman). I have grandmothers, aunts and cousins who are leaders in their personal, professional and civic lives in both the private and public sectors. Yes. My family is awesome (more Christmas presents, please!) but that’s not what I’m getting at.
I am a twenty-something male serving in a non-supervisory role as a management assistant for the City of Pearland, TX. I am not responsible for hiring city managers, department heads, or even, interns. Being a young white male, you might ask why I would be concerned that only 13 percent of city managers are women; and maybe you should be too.
My New Frame of Reference
Women in leadership roles have been a constant in my life. I have taken that as a given until I read the Women Leading Government report and Kirsten Wyatt’s Glacial Pace column. Like many others, I was both surprised and disturbed.
My local government career path had been typical. You know the drill. Get your education. Get your foot in the door. Get hired. Serve your community. Learn everything you can. Advance you career. Retire 35 years later; or maybe, more realistically for our generation, 45 years later… or never
We are well versed in this process. The lucky ones take these steps in order but many of us (myself included) have gone through this cycle more than once to get where we are today; and we’re not done yet. The focus and determination are necessary but with your nose to grindstone it’s hard to see where you’re going; let alone where everyone else is headed. That is a problem.
It’s a Zero Sum Game
Becoming a city manager is a zero-sum game. Broadening the percent of women in city management creates more competition for leadership roles. This will make it harder for me, and other professionals, to reach the goal of becoming a city manager. However, increasing diversity in local government is exactly what local government needs, here’s why.
We are doing ourselves, our organizations, our communities, and our profession a disservice by choosing to maintain a narrow view of the world. This narrow view leads to lost opportunities for attracting and retaining the best leaders regardless of gender or race.
I hesitate to get philosophical but every great social change has started with a change in mindset. In today’s culture, it’s easy to find people who agree men and women should have equal opportunities. Philosophically speaking, in my experience, that is a pretty well-established principal.
However, for real change, we must have an honest discussion on the legitimate, practical ramifications of an under-representation of women in leadership roles in our profession. We must communicate why we all benefit from remedying the issue. For some, this may seem basic but for others they need to hear it.
Diversity Yields Innovation
To say the status quo is acceptable is to believe that 87% of our best leaders are male. To be satisfied with where we are as a profession is to stop moving forward and a major disservice to our profession. If you don’t prescribe to the 87% believers, you are acknowledging that we might not be putting our best people in key positions.
Cities have rightfully been dubbed the new “laboratories of democracy.” I have worked in city managers’ offices in Novi, MI, and Pearland, TX. I’ve learned from my mentors the importance of putting your best people in key positions, giving them the tools to succeed, and then, getting out of the way. Giving staff the tools to succeed can lead to new ideas and energy.
Take that logic and apply it to our profession at a whole. Challenge yourself to expand your paradigm outside of you and your organization and think holistically. Reframing your paradigm will help advance the most talented (and hopefully, diverse) group of leaders. And luckily, since local government managers are notorious copy cats, this will start a wave of change.
During the ELGL webinar, Ms. Voorhees and Ms. Lange-Skaggs pointed out that women bring a different set of priorities and a different voice to our profession. Diversity in priorities and voice creates an environment for managers to make connections and innovate in ways not explored before. Anyone who has ever been a part of a successful inter-departmental team has seen this logic in action.
While you might not have all the answers I’d challenge you to step off the sidelines. Be open to learning. Be open to action. Be engaged in finding solutions rather than engaged in why there is no solution. Be skeptical of “that’s how it’s always been.” We don’t accept that rationale in our organizations; we cannot accept it in our profession.