By Samantha Wagner
The conversation on women in the local government management profession has been building momentum. As the discussion continues, it seems more important than ever to promote the triumphs and contributions of women chief administrative officers (CAOs) who are progressively earning the respect of their peers and breaking down many of the barriers they contend with in today's local government profession.
This article is an opportunity to celebrate women in the profession who have not only earned the respect and recognition of their peers by achieving the role of CAO but also have been selected as their community's first female manager. These groundbreakers can help local government professionals recognize and understand the backgrounds, accomplishments, and obstacles that women face on their way to achieving their professional goals.
Each of them was asked what motivated their achievements and if a mentor was important to reaching a CAO position. They also could describe a story of perseverance despite any barriers they might have experienced.
As you read these brief stories of five women leaders in local government, join the conversation on social media. Look for the hashtag #SheLeadsGov and use it to share stories about the groundbreaking women in local government whom you know. ICMA might feature them in a Local Gov Life podcast.
Julie Underwood l ICMA West Coast Region Member l City Manager l Mercer Island, Washington
Making a meaningful difference is my greatest motivator. Every day I'm reminded of the important work we're involved in and how we're shaping our communities. In addition, working with a team of individuals who care as deeply as I do in delivering effective services is energizing, rewarding, and a privilege.
The barrier that I, and I suspect those like me, face daily is implicit bias. Despite this, I have persevered. I have been appointed as the first female city manager in two communities. I do not believe I would have overcome this barrier if I had resentment or blame in my heart. I choose to believe people are inherently good, and they want the best for their community no matter where they live.
I have been fortunate that early in my career I worked with two strong and intelligent women leaders, Julia Novak and Catherine Tuck Parrish, in the city of Rockville, Maryland. They are outstanding role models.
Also in my corner as mentors were Steve Burkett and Bob Olander in the city of Shoreline, Washington. They prepared me specifically for the city manager role. When I struggled with self-confidence, they, and many others along the way, always believed in me.
Elizabeth Dragon l ICMA Northeast Region Member l City Manager l Keene, New Hampshire
When I was a child, women made up a small part of the workforce. I had no notion of this number or what it meant until I was barely a teenager and my father passed away. It was then that my mother—unprepared as she was—needed to enter the workforce full-time for the first time to support us.
She worked multiple low-wage paying positions to support me, my brother, and sister. It was then that I set my mind on doing all that I could to grow up to be a self-reliant person. A woman with a career!
As I was moving through life, this concept was growing in popularity. The percentage of women entering the workforce was doubling and tripling. I had no idea how I would get there or that I would find such a personally rewarding career in government service.
My life experiences created a fire in my soul to persevere through adversity, which has brought me to where I am today. While my motivation came from within, I was fortunate to have many mentors along the way. These types of relationships were informal and just naturally evolved.
I have been employed with many driven and selfless individuals in the field of government service who work diligently to do their small part to make a difference. To be part of such an effort is an extremely rewarding experience, and to help lead this type of effort is both gratifying and humbling beyond words.
I think if there is any wisdom that I can share, it would be to always push forward. We all face challenges in our careers and our home life. Regardless of gender and socioeconomic status, you can be sure that life will, at times, be difficult. The difference will be in how you respond.
Margie Rose l ICMA Mountain Plains Region Member l City Manager l Corpus Christi, Texas
My achievements in the profession have been motivated by my ability to persevere. It has not always been easy, but I've been able to expand diversity and promote the profession at its highest level in local government.
When I was trying to become a city manager for the first time early in my career, the outlook did not look promising. I had many barriers to overcome, including gender and race, but I always stayed focused on my goal to become a manager. In fact, I was passed over twice for the position where I currently serve, but I knew that if I continued to persevere and work hard I would eventually overcome any barriers.
I did not have any one person who was a major influence to get the CAO spot. There were a number of individuals who came into my life, at the right time, to help me through the various phases of my career. As an example, early on in my career my supervisors encouraged me by allowing me to work in different departments to gain local government experience.
This experience became the framework for understanding local government. Other individuals who influenced my career took the time to meet with me to answer questions or helped me resolve critical issues.
Christina Volkers l ICMA Midwest Region Member l City Manager l Moorhead, Minnesota
Most would say I am a Type A personality, and they would be correct! Every personality test I have taken confirms this. Besides this character "flaw" (oops, I mean "attribute"), I am extremely self-motivated. I want the best, I want to do my best, and I want my community to be the best.
This does not mean I am the best. There are so many talented and successful women in public management; however, I strive to make a difference, as cliché as that may be.
I believe all successful women have had to overcome some personal and professional obstacles. I have learned to be extremely compartmentalized between my home and work lives. Early in my career I was consumed with all things work, and I had a hard time balancing my work and family.
As I gained experience and conquered various hurdles, I learned to work hard when at work or a work event but to let go when I am home. My perseverance to attain this skill has paid dividends in terms of my health and happiness, in addition to my family's well-being.
I try to share my story with young leaders who are still in the early stages of their careers, emphasizing how fortunate I have been to have had great mentors and how I have learned from them, including having to make course corrections and working on areas of development to be better and to grow as a leader.
In terms of who specifically helped me, a few strong and successful women have influenced my career over the years. My first was a direct boss: Deputy District Administrator Chelle Uecker, who was always willing to be frank with me, even if I didn't want to hear it. Her advice never fell on deaf ears.
There were also many judges in leadership positions in both the Minnesota and California courts who influenced my carreer: Susan Miles, Mary Hannon, Laurie Earl, and Marsha Slough.
By watching the career and successes of County Administrator Molly O'Rourke, I decided to go back to my beginnings...local government, and I am thrilled I did.
Finally, my current council is majority female for the first time in history—proud women helping lead a growing city. These strong, spirited, and intelligent women influenced my career the most of all. Yet I would guess that not one of them realizes the impact they had on me! Kudos to women in leadership everywhere, and thank you for your influence on the leaders of tomorrow.
Gina Holt l ICMA Southeast Region Member l City Manager l Springfield, Tennessee
My parents taught me at a young age to always do the best job possible regardless of what I was doing. I have tried to live by that in all phases of my life, including working in the public and private sectors.
I have also been fortunate to work with two professional city managers while serving as assistant city manager. Both individuals had confidence in my abilities and gave me the freedom to get things done as needed.
I confess that when I first started working in local government many years ago, I didn't understand how much the decisions we make at city hall really impact residents. I liked my job, but I wasn't convinced a career in local government was what I wanted.
As time went on, however, I realized that I could make a difference and give people a voice. I was motivated by helping people with problems, by listening to suggestions for improvement, and by the satisfaction of knowing that what we do locally makes a difference. The residents of Springfield have been incredibly supportive.
Members of the Tennessee City Management Association were undoubtedly influential with my career path. I've been a member of TCMA for more than 25 years, and in the early 1990s there were few women managers. Today, TCMA's records show that women make up 25 percent of the association's membership.
In my early years, "the guys" were so supportive and helpful. I came from the business sector and had federal government experience, so there was a lot to learn about local government. I would not be here today without the TCMA membership.
The networking, training, and educational conferences, including the ICMA conferences and resources, all played a large part in my desire to continue a career in local government.