#13Percent: The Role of the Elected Official with Rafael Baptista

Posted on January 30, 2015

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We’re committed to keeping the #13Percent issue at the forefront of local government discussions.  Periodically, we’ll post “From My Perspective” blog posts from ELGL members on the topic of women in local government leadership.  

Here’s a post from SE ELGL Project Manager Rafael Baptista. Baptista is a soon to graduate MPA candidate at UNC and an intern with the Orange County Solid Waste Management Department. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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When I read the findings of the recent ICMA report detailing how only 13 percent of local government managers are female, I was surprised by the lack of progress. The report found that the percentage had not increased since 1984. (Note: I was negative 5 years old in ’84.) In this article, I will share my reaction to the findings, explore one of the root causes of this problem, and propose a possible solution.

30 Years and No Progress, Really?

I was born in 1989 and grew up in a progressive area of Portland, OR. I was raised to believe that there is no difference between men and women. Gender equality felt like a given.

willamette-university-google-mapsWhile a undergraduate student at Willamette University, I witnessed gender equality around me. Among campus student leaders, there was a good mix of women and men. It was not that uncommon for the top students in classes to be women. I left hopeful that gender equality would be the norm for my generation.

I have had the privilege of having many female mentors, professors, and supervisors such as Willamette University Interim Director of Admissions Susan Corner, ELGL Co-Founder Kirsten Wyatt, and Catawba County Assistant County Manager Mary Furtado. As a second year student in the UNC MPA program, the majority of my classmates are female which I hope is a positive sign for the future diversification of the government workforce.

Maybe because of where I grew up, or where I went to school, I had not been exposed to the 13 percent issue in local government management.  When I read the recent ICMA report, I was startled and saddened by the findings.

Regardless of my experiences, it is clear that local government needs to do a better job understanding the impediments to progress and develop solutions. Imagine the year 2045, will we continue to have the 13 percent issue? What would be an acceptable percentage? Will the gender issue be solved, replaced by the lack of ethnic diversity?

For now, let’s focus on 2015 by discussing reasons for the lack of female local government managers. The report suggests a few root causes:

  • different approaches to career development,
  • different gender perceptions of certain behaviors,
  • gender specific expectations of work-life balance, and
  • negative attitudes from elected officials are to blame.

I concur that these are contributors to the root problem.

8 Percent Issue for Elected Officials

Women-in-Congress-Pie_WebI think another contributor is the typically male-dominated boards who hire and fire city and county managers. Research shows that employers (in this case governing boards) have a tendency to hire people who look and act like them. If that is true, and I believe it is true, we cannot expect to see a significant increase in the number of female local government managers until we see more female local elected officials.

Looking at the statistics of women in elected official indicates that we have an upward climb. The number are bad, really bad, according to the Women in Politics Institute at American University, only eight percent of the mayors of America’s largest 100 cities are women. Female elected officials are so underrepresented that the FairVote Project predicts that, at the current pace, it will take 500 years for women to comprise a representative share of elected officials.

We can wait another 500 years, or we can start to act by broadening the conversation to include the need for more female elected officials.  We need male and female elected officials to take ownership of the issue.

Deafening Silence

We-need-to-talkStealing a page from Kirsten Wyatt’s groundbreaking post, every state and national association needs to be talking about it. Seems easy? However, the silence from these groups in recent weeks and years has been deafening. Most notable, a national association contacted ELGL to acknowledge that they read Kirsten’s article. The association noted that they have had similar discussions but lack solutions. Unfortunately, their next step was not to engage in conversation, instead it was to instruct us that they’d “let us know” if they figure something out.

Encouraging women to run for office needs to be a priority for professional associations. Studies show that women are less likely to be encouraged to run for office then men. Encouragement is critical since deciding to run for office is a difficult decision with many significant implications.

The 13 percent issue is real and is not going away. After 30 years with no improvement, the time is now for new, modern strategies. These strategies will involve reaching staff and elected officials. Improving gender diversity on elected boards is especially important, and one, that ELGL will continue to address in coming months.

What other solutions do you think are necessary? Engage with us at @ELGL50 and @RafaelBaptista5 and make sure to use #13percent

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