The Importance of Gender Diversity for Municipal Boards

Lena Eisenstein
5 min read

Gender equality at every level of government benefits citizens in their communities. Female leaders help to solve local community problems and save governments money.

Pamela Antil is the assistant city administrator in Santa Barbara, California and the co-founder of the League of Women in Government. She says the gender imbalance for promotions in the public sector has gotten better with time, but we're still a long way away from equality.

Heidi Voorhees, co-owner of GovHR USA, which is a recruiting firm for local government, agrees. Voorhees is surprised that the percentage of women in local government isn't higher. She believes that local governments need to promote gender diversity in every way including identifying talent and developing it.

A 2018 survey by ICMA (International City Manager's Association) reports that women are less likely to seek jobs at the top. Around 53% of women desired to be the chief administrative officer; whereas, 72% of men wanted the same position.

Women Lagging in Local Government Positions

Other studies show similar results around the lack of women employed in local government positions. The National Research Center collected data from over 20,000 local government workers in over 40 jurisdictions that showed 39% of men felt their prospects for promotion were either excellent or good as compared with only 29% of women who stated the same opinion. The same study showed that 49% of men rated their opportunities for career growth as excellent or good and only 43% of women held the same sentiment. Angelica Wedell, head of business development and communications for the National Research Center, notes that these percentages are noteworthy because women tend to answer questions about their government jobs more positively than men.

Mary Guy, a professor at the University of Colorado, authored a landmark study on gender issues in state government in 1992. While the study is not new, it showed that women who worked in K-12 education or child protective services were more likely to get advanced leadership positions than in transportation departments. She also stated that her results showed that the higher levels of state agencies placed men in director positions and women in staff support or associate director positions. In particular, women aren't likely to get the most senior leadership positions.

Why Are Women Not Very Prominent in Local Government?

Part of the reason that we don't hear as much about women in local government is because state and local governments don't tend to report the breakdown of promotions by gender.

ICMA also reports that just under 18% of chief administrative officer positions were held by women by the end of 2018, which is up from 14.4% in 2014. If we look back to the mid-1970s, we see that less than 2% of women held the position of chief administrative officer.

Pamela Antil says that women are qualified for positions in local government. They just don't believe that they're qualified. She notes that men will go after a position where they only meet a few of the job qualifications and women hesitate to go after positions unless they meet every qualification.

From a historical perspective, local government leadership positions have been dominated by men. City departments like police, transportation, public works, and fire departments also tend to be dominated by men employees.

How to Enhance Gender Diversity in Local Government

The first step toward enhancing gender diversity in local government is to recognize that it's a problem and then look for ways to increase ways to promote gender diversity.

To begin with, start the conversation about gender biases in the local government workspace and develop a plan to eliminated them. All local governments could benefit by learning more about and sharing the economic benefits of increasing gender balance. Advocate for family-friendly policies like parental leave, affordable childcare options, onsite childcare, and flexible schedules.

Offer training and development opportunities for women. ICMA offers a host of training opportunities for women in local government like free webinars, networking, coaching, and mentoring. Members will also benefit from roundtables, educational sessions, and workshops at the ICMA Annual Conference. If costs are an obstacle, consider offering scholarships or other funding sources that make it easier for women to attend trainings. Offer interim or acting assignments for women to have the chance to gain experience. Advocate for women to get promotions when opportunities for leadership positions arise. The more women who serve in leadership positions, the more it will inspire other women to aspire to the same. Mary Guy agrees and states that the greater number of women that hold top-level positions, the greater willingness there is to hire or appoint skilled and competent women.

Bonnie Svrcek is the city manager of Lynchburg, Virginia, where women occupy the offices of mayor, vice-mayor, and half of the department heads. Svrcek is known for saying, 'If you can see it, you can be it.' Three of five statewide elected offices are held by women in Oregon. About 51% of the promotions in Oregon's executive branch also went to women.

Technology Helps to Enhance Women in Local Government Positions

One way to get women in your community interested in local government positions is to get them engaged and involved in your community. The more women learn about the areas of local government that need their help, the more interested they may become in seeking paid employment in local government.

Community by Diligent is a software program that streamlines council meeting management, securely manages and retains documents, and makes documents and other information accessible to the public in a timely manner. Community was designed for local governments to promote inclusivity for members of the community from all types of diverse backgrounds and abilities including young people and people with various disabilities. Community is a mobile-first design which means that women and minorities have access to current and past meeting documents anytime, anywhere. They can even participate in council meetings via videoconference.

Diligent is a pioneer in modern governance. Diligent's trusted, cloud-based applications streamline the day-to-day work of boards, councils and committees, and support accountability and transparency. That's the kind of modern governance support that all municipal employees can rely on to do their jobs effectively.