Glacial Pace: State of Women Managers in Local Government

Posted on January 11, 2015


By Kirsten Wyatt, ELGL co-founder; Ass’t City Manager, West Linn, OR

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The January 2015 edition of PM Magazine features a cover story about women leading local government agencies, and how the statistic has not improved in the last 30 years – in 1984 and in 2014, only 13 percent of local government chief administrative officers are women.  Here’s the link to the full article.  You read that right.  The statistics haven’t improved since Reagan was president, Apple first introduced the Mac for purchase, and Prince’s ‘When Doves Cry’ topped the charts.

Prince_at_Coachella_001The authors are Heidi Voorhees, a former Knope of the Week award winner and a former village manager who provides executive recruitment and human resources services, and Rachel Lange-Skaggs, a management consultant for the city of Schaumburg, Illinois.  In the article, they outline the reasons that answer why women have made so little progress taking on the top leadership role.

Ms. Voorhees and Ms. Lange-Skaggs have done an admirable job of synthesizing survey data into manageable and interesting conclusions that definitely help with everyone’s understanding about this persistent problem in the local government profession.

So, I’m not writing this post to criticize the article, or the work of ICMA and Ms. Voorhees and Ms. Lange-Skaggs.  Writing and publishing the article show important leadership on this issue.  I’m writing this post to provide my perspectives on this article, and the next steps that should be taken to actually do something with the findings, and to actually make strides toward improving that 13 percent number over the next few years.

Full disclosure – I’m writing this post in an armchair quarterback style, which means I’m sharing my opinions on something in which I have no expertise or involvement (other than… you know… being a woman in local government who is also a member of ICMA).

The article first summarizes survey information on the challenges for career advancement for women:

  1. Women believe they have to have all of the necessary experience before they apply for the next position.
  2. Women face certain challenges while trying to achieve a work/family harmony.
  3. Women who are assertive can be perceived differently than men who are assertive (i.e., the assertiveness dilemma).
  4. A woman’s career progression may be hampered by the attitudes of hiring authorities and supervisors.

I’m cool with this section of the article – it’s survey-based, and the information generally relates to concepts that have been identified in other survey-based studies on women in leadership roles.

This section also reinforces some of my personal beliefs that because we’ve talked about the lack of women in leadership as part of our ICMA membership, we’re seeing some great gains in the number of women who are serving in department head and ACM roles.  I think this shows the power of having a conversation about this topic.

I also learned a lot from this section of the article because of the statistics and anecdotes that were peppered into each item – for example:

rosie_the_riveter1“Women tend to work longer to prove themselves before they seek the same opportunities as men. Dierdre Woods, former associate dean and chief information officer for the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, notes that women who are offered promotions “generally feel they need to know 80 percent to 90 percent of their current job before they feel ready to step into a new role.”


“The fact that women are not better represented in the upper ranks of local government management is concerning, particularly when looking at the study by Robert Schuhmann and Richard Fox that indicates how female city managers bring to the table different priorities, voice different policy preferences, and are perceived to be more responsive to their constituents than are male city managers.15″


“Of the women who responded, 53 percent indicated that on more than one occasion they had received treatment or comments from elected officials that were inappropriate or disrespectful, and 35 percent indicated that the same had happened with a supervisor. In that same survey, 28 percent indicated that they were questioned on their ability to balance work and other personal commitments, and 30 percent of respondents saw their gender as a future obstacle to career advancement.”

Then the article identifies five things women can do to prepare for CAO roles:

  1. Effectively assess your skills.
  2. Make your intentions known—discreetly.
  3. Navigate the assertiveness dilemma.
  4. Partner with your partner.
  5. Develop informal networking groups and join professional organizations.

wheels-fall-off1And this is where the wheels fall off.  I read through these five things that women can do to prepare for CAO roles.  And I read through them again.  And then again.  And each time I read them, I could feel my blood pressure building and my frustration growing.

Why was I getting so rage-y and irritated?  I’ve been pondering this for a while and I think it comes down to the fact that the above five steps aren’t gender specific, and yet they’re offered as things that women can do to help themselves.

I think this is bogus.  Men need to be doing these same things to prepare themselves for leadership roles.  To imply that these are for “ladies only” bugs me, and made me start to question if we’re actually perpetuating the gender divide in CAO roles by not adequately preparing everyone in the profession for leadership roles.

So my first armchair quarterback call is:

  • When faced with good, real data as presented in the Women Leading Government report, don’t trivialize it with “action steps” that are actually just best practices for anyone – regardless of gender – who wants to advance in local government leadership.

And my armchair quarterback revisions to this section include the following two action steps that women can and should take:

  1. Talk about this report.  Talk to your elected officials, your fellow Rotarians, your MPA alumni group. Tweet about it.  Make sure your non-local gov friends know about the findings. Don’t let this report fade into the background and become last month’s news.  We’ll go another 30 years without progress if we don’t keep this topic fresh.  I haven’t seen nearly the amount of communications on social media that I’d hope to see from ICMA on this report.  This is the perfect topic to engage the social media generations and to spread the word broadly about this imbalance in leadership roles.
  2. Don’t make things like work-life balance and self awareness become “lady issues.” The advice proposed in the report shouldn’t be confined to women.  We harm the futures of our male counterparts when we imply that only women should be concerned about: “Effectively assess[ing] your skills. Mak[ing] your intentions known—discreetly. Navigate the assertiveness dilemma. Partner with your partner. Develop informal networking groups and join professional organizations.”

And then lastly, the article offers steps for ICMA, all managers and all professionals:

  1. Mentor consistently.
  2. Question personal reactions.
  3. Practice inclusion.
  4. Showcase women managers.
  5. Continue the conversation.

I get that ICMA isn’t in the business of telling elected officials what to do.  It’s not in our DNA as administrative professionals.  But when we’re faced with a challenge as big as this one – a stagnant number of women who are assuming leadership roles in the 21st century – we need to break free of our regular way of doing business and get dramatic.

When we get in the habit of sitting back and issuing reports, but not developing Big Hairy Audacious Goals about how we address the problems we’ve identified – that passivity can only be interpreted as indifference.

And so, my second armchair quarterback call is:

  • Let’s stop talking about this issue amongst ourselves, and take the communications externally to the decision makers who hire city managers – mayors and city councilors.  ICMA wants to continue the conversation, but we need to get more targeted in who participates in those conversations.

And my armchair quarterback revisions to this section include the following two action items for ICMA to take in 2015:

  1. 50 in ’15.  I want to see this topic on the agenda of the state municipal associations in all 50 states.  Not city manager groups.  Not assistant groups.  I want this issue front and center on the conference agendas for the people who hire CAOs – mayors and councilors.  I asked one of my favorite elected officials (hi Thomas!) if he was aware of the lack of women in leadership.  His response? “I have heard lack of women in a lot of professional professions.  City management wouldn’t surprise me at all.”   His surprise that we haven’t moved the needle at all in 30 years will be palpable.  To accomplish this, I want to see a roving group of professionals telling this story around the country, including at the NLC conferences in March and November.  I’d assemble people like Sherilyn Lombos, Julie Underwood, Pam Antil, Bonnie Svrcek, Katie Densford McCoy, Tansy Hayward, Julia Novak, Marissa Madrigal, Flo Miller, and Heidi Voorhees to come together for a weekend-long training and presentation preparation, and then I’d fund their attendance around the country to tell this story.  We’ll measure success when every state municipal association has heard and talked about this report.  After all, we can’t solve problems that the decision makers (who are doing the hiring) know nothing about.  We’ve seen the progress (an increase in the number of department heads and ACMs) we’ve made inside the profession when we’ve discussed this  – so let’s widen the conversation circle.
  2. Make this a “big seven” issue.  ICMA is part of the “big seven,” the seven top nonpartisan, non-profit organizations made up of United States state and local government officials (soon to be known as the “big eight” once ELGL joins up…): Council of State GovernmentsNational Governors AssociationNational Conference of State LegislaturesNational League of CitiesU.S. Conference of MayorsNational Association of CountiesInternational City/County Management Association.  While this is a local government issue, there’s no better audience to share information and find solutions than the big seven members.  Let’s find a way to get this on everyone’s radar.

In closing – I understand that I have no authority to make these things happen, and I understand that the solutions I’m proposing are waaaaaaay more difficult than solutions like “mentor consistently,” or “showcase women managers.”

downloadBut frankly, the lack of women in CAO roles is appalling.  We need to get more aggressive to deal with it.  The last 30 years have shown us that business as usual isn’t working.  I want outrage from the top leadership in ICMA, NLC, US Conference of Mayors, NaCO.  I want elected officials to worry about this topic as much as I do.

I want a nationwide conversation with anyone who works in local government.  I want big, dramatic steps and I’ll sit in my armchair and propose them until we see that statistic change.

30 years ago, I was the same age as my oldest daughter.  I hope that 30 years from now – when she’s (hopefully) working in local government, we’ve actually made some progress.


Over the next couple of months, I’ll continue to engage ELGL members and friends in conversations about this topic.  If you’re interested in helping me, or sharing your perspectives, please drop me an email at  Thanks for helping continue this discussion.  Excited to have more people join me as an armchair quarterback on this topic.


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