Report: Obstacles for Women in Local Government Leadership Remain After 30 Years

Lance Bellers /

A new report finds that the proportion of women in leadership roles in local governments hasn’t improved since Ronald Reagan was president.

The report, published in the January-February issue of the International City/County Management Association’s PM Magazine, surveyed women about how they approach opportunities at career advancement in local government and what obstacles stand in their way.

What the report found was that a slight majority of women hold positions in local governments that clearly place them on a path for leadership advancement but only about 13 percent of them make that final transition to the position of chief administrative officer.

From the PM Magazine report:

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.

According to a number of reports, the lack of female representation in government is a worldwide problem, although there has been some steady progress at higher levels of state and federal government.

In a 2013 global survey by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the United States ranks 78th in the world for female representation in government, with 17.8 percent of “lower house” government positions filled by women and 20 percent “upper house” positions, respectively.

A 2014 report from Representation 2020 indicates it would literally take 500 years for women to reach parity in U.S. government representation at the current rate of progress.

In her own response to the report, Kirsten Wyatt, the assistant city manager of West Linn, Oregon, and co-founder of Emerging Local Government Leaders (ELGL) agrees with the report’s findings but takes issues with the authors’ recommendations on increasing the number of women in CAO positions.

For some opening context, Wyatt notes in her recent ELGL blog post: “The statistics haven’t improved since [Ronald] Reagan was president, Apple first introduced the Mac for purchase, and Prince’s ‘When Doves Cry’ topped the charts.”

In contrast, she says that modern communication tools like Twitter should be used to spread the report’s findings and tap into social media’s ability to enact direct change.

Specifically, Wyatt writes that she takes issue with the five recommended steps for women preparing for CAO roles offered by the report’s authors Heidi Voorhees and Rachel Lange-Skaggs:

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.

Wyatt argues that while these recommendations are all useful and productive, they are universal, rather than suggestions specific to women in local government:

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.

Instead, Wyatt offers her own plan of action for 2015, which included getting the report’s conclusions in front of as many local leaders and other individuals within your professional network. “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,” she writes. “We’ll go another 30 years without progress if we don’t keep this topic fresh.”

Building off her initial criticism, Wyatt’s second action step is to prevent the report’s suggestions for aspiring CAO’s to be limited to women. “Don’t make things like work-life balance and self awareness become ‘lady issues,’” she writes.

Wyatt outlines several other specific recommendations before coming back to the point that while she takes issue with some of the report’s advice she thinks its findings are important and unsettling enough that they need to be brought to the attention of state and local leaders in all 50 states.

In her conclusion, Wyatt writes: “The last 30 years have shown us that business as usual isn’t working.  I want outrage from the top leadership in ICMA, [National League of Cities], US Conference of Mayors, [National Association of Counties]. 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.”


Get daily news from Route Fifty

Top stories on how innovation is driving smarter government across the country.

Close [ x ] More from GovExec