We spoke with some award-winning local government leaders about gender equity, mentorship, advice for women just starting out, and what inspires them most.
Q: Why do you feel there are fewer women local government managers than men, and what do you think can be done to improve the situation?
Amanda Mack: I believe part of the challenge is that women are far less likely than men to apply for a position they do not feel they are fully qualified for. They may feel that because they do not meet one or two of the requirements of the job posting that it is not appropriate or worth their time to apply. I also believe that I have an obligation to share my story with other women who would be phenomenal assets to public service, and encourage and support them any way that I can. I regularly assist with resume writing and interview prep. I was fortunate to have that kind of assistance when entering the profession, and I am happy to give that back. The key takeaway for me is that women have a huge role to play in local government and we should not shy away from that reality.
Tammi Saddler Jones: I feel there are fewer women local government managers than there are men because historically government at every level has been dominated by men. I had no exposure to local government until I began graduate school, when the school brought in city managers to speak to our classes and guess what—the speakers were all men. I do not recall meeting any female city managers until I was well into my career in local government, which begin in the early 2000s. Since then, I have worked in two cities where I was the first woman and the first African American woman to hold the title of city manager/administrator. I have made it my mission to recruit women to help improve the disproportionate number of women to men in local government. We must start early by introducing middle and high school students (especially young girls) to the profession by offering internships to undergraduate women, and by recruiting and retaining women to take on executive-level positions.
Heather Geyer: Having been part of helping to create the Colorado Women Leading Government chapter and advocating for women in the profession over the years, I’ve spent quite a bit of time reflecting on the nuance of this question. As a white woman of privilege, I feel we need to get comfortable having uncomfortable conversations around the barriers perpetuated in our profession. We have created disparities regarding gender, but also regarding race. Moving forward, I think we need to shift the way we look at the problem; we must begin to take an intersectional analysis when exploring these disparities.
I recommend we use the approach advanced by the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE), which is to lead with race in these discussions to move the needle further and build an inclusive city management profession. I think we've come a long way, but we are at a crossroads, and we need to shift our thinking and build a collection of local government managers that is more inclusive of gender, race, and gender expression to include LGBTQIA. If we don't reframe our thinking, I am afraid we will continue to see homogeneity and the existence of harmful “isms”—sexism, ageism, racism, etc. Imagine what our profession could look like if we genuinely welcomed all individuals to join us on this journey.
Gloria Hirashima: There are many reasons. Women are often less confident about their capability, so they do not apply or demonstrate interest in advancement unless encouraged or persuaded by peers and mentors. Women are more likely to have a mental checklist of experience they feel they ought to attain in order to advance, and to believe that there is a specific path to promotion that they must follow. Men just climb and they don’t seek permission to do so. Women tend to be more cautious about ambition. Men and women in positions of influence need to encourage women to apply and advance. Readiness is a state of mind.
Marketa Oliver: Even in 2021, women are not afforded the instant credibility that men are—even less experienced or less credentialed men. Every day I see extremely competent women being talked over, discounted, and publicly ridiculed in ways their male counterparts do not experience. To remedy the situation, it is incumbent upon all of us to monitor and rethink how we view and talk about powerful, well-educated, and high-profile women.
Additionally, the division of domestic labor and childcare still often falls primarily to women, making it difficult to be continually available for early morning and evening meetings or networking opportunities. To improve access, I have tried to steer the service clubs I have been involved with to move to lunch meetings. It might also help involvement in evening meetings to have childcare available—not just for managers, but also for residents who want to attend council meetings or planning and zoning, etc. Consider continuing digital access to meetings, which has become more widespread during the pandemic. I think any opportunity for an organization to be flexible in scheduling is critical. That flexibility can improve employee satisfaction and might be the difference in someone being able to continue in the workforce or continue with education.
Joyce Hunt: Thinking back over my 40-plus years in local government, some of the factors that I believe have resulted in fewer women becoming local government managers include the lack of educational programs focused on training people for leadership roles, societal norms that did not encourage women to take on leadership roles outside of the family, the lack of female role models in positions of local government leadership, and the challenge of demonstrating leadership skills as a woman.
I think we need to continue to encourage women to seek positions in local government and then support their efforts through mentorship programs, support groups, professional skill building, and connecting them to respected local government managers. Most importantly, we need to remember that leadership styles may be different, but that doesn’t diminish their effectiveness.
Q: A lot has been made of the importance of women connecting with mentors of both genders as a strategy for career advancement. How have your mentors made an impact on you and your career?
Tonya Galbraith: I have had two mentors in my career that quicky come to mind and both were men. One was my boss when I was young and moved to a very unfamiliar place a thousand miles from home. He was a director in the mayor's office, and I was hired as his administrative assistant. However, he sent me to meetings representing his office, he introduced me to people that could help me network, he allowed me to present proclamations on behalf of the mayor in his stead, he allowed me to start the Mayor's Volunteer Program, and he had me write newsletters regarding all the activities. He helped me grow in more ways than I can count.
Tammi Sadler Jones: I certainly agree that it is important for women to connect with mentors of both genders for career advancement opportunities. One of the individuals who mentored me was Dr. Roger Kemp. He had a great impact on me and my career by allowing me to take the lead on special projects, encouraging me to join and take on a leadership role in professional organizations, and by having the confidence in me to allow me to run the city operations during his absence. Roger introduced me to ICMA programs like Leadership ICMA and the ICMA Credentialing Program, which helped me to get to where I am today.
Gloria Hirashima: I’ve had many people who have been inspirational to me—both men and women. And it often began with someone telling me that I could do something bigger and more ambitious than the job I was in. The first city planner I worked for suggested I should start readying myself to be a planning director during my first year of work as an associate planner. A city administrator asked me to apply and hired me to be the planning director. Another city administrator suggested I was ready to be a city administrator. I probably wouldn’t have applied for any of those positions without their encouragement. It wouldn’t have occurred to me. I’ve also been inspired by many women in nonprofit executive director roles. Their enthusiasm and passion have motivated me to engage in community initiatives and has connected me to men and women in other fields of work. These connections are critical to work enjoyment and fulfillment.
Q: What advice would you give to young women just starting out in local government?
Earlene Teaster: Be a very good listener, especially in the beginning. That is when you garner so much helpful information from your peers. I have found that it is necessary to learn how to handle people, especially your residents, and to lead by example. Your leadership skills need to improve constantly.
Gloria Hirashima: Aim high! Encourage each other. Don’t be stifled by your own caution.
Marketa Oliver: While in college, I worked for a brilliant female business owner who told me her strategy for working her way up in a male-oriented industry. She told me never to take on a task that would not be asked of a male counterpart.
Joyce Hunt: I would advise young women to acquire a strong technical base first, such as finance/accounting/communication, and then build on that with a broader public administration program. I would also encourage young women to find a position that exposes them to the policy process to experience the complexity of this process and the reality of how services and programs are created and changed. Join your state and local city managers association and become actively involved with the outstanding the leaders in your field.
Amanda Mack: Do not be afraid to ask questions. Seek out advice and answers from places that may push your comfort level (a department head with much more experience than you, a member of the community with a differing point of view, for example). Approach your work with a mindset to learn, no matter how much you may already know about a person, issue, or subject. Do not be afraid to try new things, but understand that if they do not work, own it and correct the course. There is no shame in being wrong or making a mistake. No matter the field, or the person, everyone makes mistakes, especially early on in their career. Also, set boundaries. This work has the ability to consume you, and at times, it will, but learn how to pull back and prioritize.
Tammi Sadler Jones: I would encourage young women to take ownership of this chosen profession. Seek out professional development opportunities that can help you grow. Connect with other women in the profession. Volunteer to take the lead on special projects so you that you can showcase your leadership and organizational skills. You can do this. The way has already been paved for you so bloom where you are planted.
Tonya Galbraith: Don’t be afraid to move. It is so easy to get comfortable where you are that you might miss your first big opportunity. If there is a position in a faraway state working for a city or town of 1,200 people, take it. You will have the opportunity to learn a little bit about every department and why each one is important—wastewater treatment, utility billing, trash collection, and why not filing potholes and plowing snow can make or break you. That position will be the steppingstone to the next position and who knows where that might take you.
Heather Geyer: Focus on the journey, not the destination. If you focus too much on what you don’t have or the next big thing, you are going to miss out on the truly important things that make up this experience—the people, the connections, the problems to fix, the opportunity to give back, and the ability to grow and serve. Learn to be present where you are. Work hard, embrace the opportunities that come your way, and have fun!
Q: What fictional female character inspires you?
Tammi Sadler Jones: My 6-year-old son has fallen in love with the movie Incredibles 2, which is about a family of superheroes. The mother, known as Elastigirl, does an excellent job balancing being a wife, a mother, and a superhero. She is a fearless leader who shows enormous courage and strength. Elastigirl represents the type of leader that I strive to be each day. I want to be an effective and efficient local government leader who is intentional about serving and protecting the citizens of my community with the upmost integrity and passion. That is my superpower!
Marketa Oliver: Tess McGill from the movie Working Girl. She was born into humble circumstance, recognized education was the key to advancement, worked hard, took chances, and didn’t treat other women the unfortunate way she had been treated when she earned her way into a position of authority.
Earlene Teaster: Dolly Parton has always inspired me. She has a theme park here in my city and I am fortunate enough to be able to see her in different situations, not just as an entertainer, but as a very humble person with real feelings for people. Such a leader!
Amanda Mack: Elizabeth McCord, aka Madam Secretary. There are so many things that I love about this character—her attitude, her approach to family and work, and how she doesn’t back down from a fight, but also doesn’t compromise her morals or integrity. She is a strong leader and a dedicated wife and mother. The show highlights that aspect, and doesn’t make her choose between a career and her family, which I think is incredibly important for women to see.