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Breaking the Gender Cycle in Local Government Leadership

Posted on October 10, 2016

This guest blog is by ELGL member Leisha Dehart-Davis, the Albert and Gladys Hall Coates Distinguished Term Associate Professor at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill.

If you are an ELGL website regular, you probably have #13percent seared onto your brain.  ELGL has done a marvelous job creating awareness of the fact that there are still relatively few women working as local government managers, not much higher than in 1984, when – wait for it – only 13 percent of local government managers were women.

The million dollar question is…why? Some reasons (and possible solutions) come from research conducted in the early 1990s by a rock star social scientist named Alice Eagly.

tumblr_inline_o3g1w3vxjf1qkdogo_500Eagly, a psychology professor at Northwestern University, is an expert meta-analyst, skilled in synthesizing the results of many studies to tell a coherent story. Her meta-analysis with colleague Steven Karau in 1991 suggests particular gender patterns in how leaders emerge:

1. Men have historically been more likely to emerge as leaders across different settings; this pattern continues, but men’s competitive advantage has declined over time;

2. More time spent interacting with decision makers prior to leader selection reduces men’s competitive edge;

3. Women gain competitive advantage in positions requiring more social interaction, like negotiating and sharing of ideas;

4. In occupations traditionally held by men, men maintain a decidedly competitive edge in leadership selection.

Stay with me here, because the last two findings are particularly important to local government.

Given that local government managers routinely engage in complex social interaction, female and male management candidates should play on a level playing field.

But, because local government management has been male-dominated for so long, it is harder for hiring managers to conceive of women holding those positions. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle that harms cities and counties because it shrinks the talent pool of leaders.

So what does this mean for aspiring local government managers and #13Percent?

tumblr_m5xiadh5xn1qafuobo1_1280If you are interested in climbing the local government management ladder, take every opportunity you can to interact with hiring committees. More face time yields competitive advantage, particularly if you are a woman;

Given the social complexities of local government management, get your soft skill game on, including active listening, empathizing, and building webs of inclusion;

Take heart. The proportion of female managers will spike at some point (increasing at an accelerated rate) because local government management will no longer be considered a man’s profession.

Local government management is at a crossroads, and the possibilities are exciting. Starting a new gender cycle is just one of them.

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