A group of 10 local government professionals, working in the public and private sector, came together in April, 2011 and conducted a brainstorming session to begin a dialogue on women in local government in Illinois. A follow-up workshop was held in May, 2011. The group began under the title of “The Legacy Project” – focusing on their legacy as leaders. The core questions before them centered on the following themes:
- How can we help attract, mentor and retain women in local government?
- How can we encourage students to pursue a career in local government management?
- How can we help diversify the profession and encourage more minority representation?
The women emerged from the meetings with ideals, ideas, and action plans about their legacies- captured by the purpose statement of “Advancing Women in Local Government.” Goals and programs were also discussed in detail, especially those relating to the chosen core values:
- Share – knowledge and expertise
- Mentor – women in local government
- Diversify – the profession to encourage greater minority involvement
Members of the Legacy Project are many and diverse, including women working either directly in local government units, or for organizations that provide services and education to government agencies. Though they work for various organizations, come from varied professional backgrounds, and are at different stages in their careers, they all believe women in local government management is an issue that warrants close and immediate attention. The 2011 statistics that follow highlight their concerns about today’s local government environment.
Dawn Peters is the current Assistant Director at the Northern Illinois University Center for Governmental Studies and Executive Director, Illinois City/County Management Association. Previously, she worked as the Executive Director, Wisconsin City/County Management Association and Executive Director, Illinois Local Government Lawyers, Dawn has an undergraduate and graduate degree from Northern Illinois University.
Q & A with Dawn
In our interview, Dawn reflects on the creation of the Legacy Project and the state of local government for women leaders.
What is your role with the Legacy Project and what do you besides that?
Within the Legacy Project, I serve on the Board of Directors and I assist with planning the annual Legacy Conference. Outside of the Legacy Project, I am the assistant director of the Center for Governmental Studies at Northern Illinois University and serve as the executive director of both the Illinois City/County Management Association and Wisconsin City/County Management Association.
How does the Legacy Project currently assist women in local government?
We have a number of initiatives:
The project has quarterly luncheons (The current quarter is April, May, June). The current topic is generational diversity. The June session (June 4) will be held in Woodridge, Illinois. After this quarter another topic will be selected for next quarter. Luncheons are free and held on the first Wednesday of each month from 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.
Another way we help is through our Annual Legacy Conference. The Legacy Conference provides a forum for women in local government to communicate, learn, and network in order to hurdle obstacles and learn from one another (men are welcomed). The 2014 Annual Legacy Conference was May 16th, but not to fear the next one will be May 15th, 2015!
“Outreach is considered an essential aspect of the Legacy Project, as it will allow women to reduce barriers and spread knowledge across the broad and diverse professionals in local government. Within Illinois and beyond our local borders, Legacy Project members will seek to involve others through formal and informal gatherings at conferences and association meetings.” – Legacy Project
What challenges face women in local government today?
For women with children, especially young children, it’s difficult to balance family and career. Local government is a demanding career especially once you get into the higher levels of the organization. Typically the spouse is working outside of the house as well, which adds even more stress to the work life balance. This can also be a challenge for men, but traditionally the balance is harder on women.
Another issue is that women tend to hold themselves back. They don’t always have the confidence to apply for the next position and feel like that they need to meet every skill set that is out there. Women might not always feel that they can meet every requirement for the job, whereas men will just go out and try for it and get the position.
Also the people who tend to do the hiring are councils. The councils in government tend to be male dominated as well, which can be a barrier to women trying to get that top position.
How can women combat these challenges?
I think that getting mentors, attending legacy project luncheons, making connections, networking, making sure you have the skill sets, and just always improving and developing professionally is key. I would definitely say get a mentor experience with another women manager that you respect or aspire to be like. Join groups like the Legacy Project!
If you were a woman beginning a local government career, how would you approach making an impact on an organization.
I would network and communicate with all levels in the organization, from the manager to the department heads to the line workers. This will serve as a way of gaining trust within the organization. I would also educate myself with all aspects of the organization including public works, where you tend to find less females.
One action item is to strengthen your background by rotating through various departments. It’s key to get familiar with all aspects of an organization. The familiarity builds confidence, grows your network, and showcases your understanding of the departments.
It’s truly all about building relationships, communication, and trust!
How do you see the future of women local government?
THERE ARE NO BOUNDARIES. There is increasing literature being written about women in the work place, such as Sheryl Sandberg and the “Lean In” book. Much of the literature is positive and encourages women to step up and not be afraid to fight for your position. Women are also being encouraged to speak with confidence, and to mentor the next generation. I think it’s bright for women who aspire to become a manager in government.
“You have to let your dreams and goals be known and if you don’t how will people know?” – Dawn Peters