According to a 2020 CNBC.com article, “…Retaining and promoting female talent is more than just a diversity issue. According to McKinsey & Company data, it’s also a critical business issue: $4.3 trillion can be added to the country’s economy if gender parity is reached by 2025.”1
In a recent article in the New York Times, the author explained that the reason women-led nations were doing better with COVID-19 is because of their leadership style. “Male leaders can overcome gendered expectations, of course, and many have. But it may be less politically costly for women to do so because they do not have to violate perceived gender norms to adopt cautious, defensive policies…. What we learned with [the COVID-19 pandemic] is that…perhaps people will learn to recognize and value risk-averse, caring, and thoughtful leaders.”2
During the 2019–2020 Florida City and County Management Association (FCCMA) program year, one of President Shannon Lewis’s initiatives was to encourage the promotion of women into local government executive positions. President Lewis designated the two of us, long-time Florida managers, as co-chairs in developing an initiative to increase the number of women in local government executive positions in Florida.
In 2018, FCCMA conducted a diversity survey of their membership. Only 25 percent of the “full” members were female. At the time, full membership was restricted to chief appointed officials (CAOs) and the deputy or assistant CAO. There was a more even split between males and females in the affiliate category, which consisted of all other local government employees or those employed by a not-for-profit agency, association, university, etc. Forty-five percent of the affiliate members were female. Based on that study, it would seem that while there are women serving in local government in Florida, they are not progressing to top leadership positions.
Efforts within Florida local government circles to encourage more female leadership have been ongoing for many years. One effort, a 2018 article co-authored by Hannah-Spurlock and Dr. Robert E. Lee, assistant professor, Department of Political Science and Public Administration, Florida Gulf Coast University, and former Florida city manager, examined factors that influenced women’s rise to the CAO position.3 It cited a statistic pulled from the 2012 ICMA State of the Profession survey, that nearly three-fourths of MPA graduates are women, yet only 19.8 percent of chief appointed officers are women. The article examined the reasons why there weren’t more female CAOs based on research about women executives across multiple industries and a study we conducted of the selection process for 26 female local government manager appointments in Florida that occurred between the years 2012 and 2016.
The study was based on a previously published study in the Harvard Business Review that examined university faculty appointments.4 The authors concluded that the chances of a female hire increased significantly the more women there were in the finalist pool. Our research showed some support for the hypothesis. Also interesting was that 30 percent of the appointments in the Florida study involved the promotion of a female into the manager position from another position in the organization. Additionally, the Florida study found that the gender make-up of the elected body affected the outcome of the selection. Three-fourths of the appointing boards included at least one female member and of those, about 60 percent included two female members.
The 2019–2020 Process
To begin our effort, we sought to collect data directly from women in different stages of their local government career to hear about their professional aspirations, as well as what hurdles and challenges they experience in that journey. We believed that learning this might provide valuable insight into our profession and establish a platform from which to develop strategies. We decided to collect this information by conducting focus groups of women in local government. In order to reach women all over the state, focus groups were held in nine locations (pre-pandemic) and one virtual session. The focus group sessions were about 90 minutes long and facilitated by women local government managers prepared to lead the conversations without influencing the dialogue. A total of 84 women participated. See Figure 1 for an analysis of the self-reported demographic data of the focus group participants.
During the sessions, participants were asked four questions:
1. How many of you:
a. Aspire to be (or already are) a city or county CAO or another chartered officer?
b. Aspire to be an assistant/deputy manager or department head?
c. Aspire to be something other than a or b?
d. Don’t know for sure what your aspiration is?
2. If you are the CAO of your agency, describe your path to that position.
3. If you are not the CAO of your agency, describe your path to that position.
4. If you do not see the CAO position in your career path, please elaborate on your decision.
Focus Group Findings
Thirty participants aspired to be or already are a CAO or chartered officer. Fifty-two participants aspire to be an assistant/deputy manager or department head. Nine participants aspire to be something other than a CAO, ACM or department head, and five women were undecided about their career goal. Some participants voted for more than one of the options.
Unfortunately, not many female CAOs participated in the focus groups so we weren’t able to determine a “normal” or “traditional” path for women to this position. Although, like the data we collected showing a significant number of women chosen through promotion versus a competitive selection process, most of the women who participated in the focus group were appointed through promotion or a non-competitive selection.
The responses for the questions regarding challenges perceived to achieve the CAO position and the reasons why participants were not interested in becoming the CAO were similar. The responses can be divided into two major categories: one involves work-life balance and the other involves gender-related biases and presuppositions.
In this category, themes that appeared as challenges to becoming or reasons for not choosing to be a CAO in most if not all the focus group sessions involved family, the political role of a CAO, and job security. The participants felt as though prioritizing their family made it difficult if not impossible to be a successful and effective CAO. Many felt like they needed to be there for their kids, or they didn’t want to leave the community where they are raising their families. Participant quotes included:
• “I feel guilty when I work too many late nights. If I did what the city manager does, I would have nothing left for my family.”
• “While my kids were growing up, I didn’t feel able to both be a city manager and be a good parent.”
• “Women have to make more of a choice than men between career and children.”
Many were not interested in having to deal with the political dynamics of the CAO position. These dynamics included managing difficult elected officials, the expectation of 24-hour availability and lack of work-life balance, and being the public face of controversial issues. Participant quotes included:
• “I don’t like being in the spotlight. I like being behind the scenes.”
• “I don’t want to have to be available 24/7.”
• “There is no personal or professional life. It’s all just one big life.”
Participants were also concerned about job security. In addition, they felt like women are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to proving oneself and the allowance to make mistakes.
• “As the assistant, I don’t worry as much about getting fired.”
• “Men don’t feel threatened because they run things and they know it.”
• “We as women are too afraid to make a mistake.”
• “Women are given tasks to try to see if we can be successful, but then there is no push to promote.”
Other Gender-Related Challenges
Other common themes that were shared by many women included the belief that they didn’t have the right skills, education, or enough experience to be a CAO; that the networking and mentoring opportunities for women are lacking; and that there is bias among peers, staff, and elected officials.
Several years ago, Hewlett-Packard wrote a report that discussed why women weren’t in top management positions. 5 They learned that women applied for a promotion when they believed they met 100 percent of the qualifications listed for the job. Men would apply when they thought they only met 60 percent of the requirements. Focus group responses seemed to support this conclusion. Among the quotes heard:
• “I’m always like ‘oh no, someone is going to figure out I’m not qualified.’”
• “My skill set is not a good fit to be the CAO.”
• “The CAO must be well-rounded and fully understand all department operations and types of services.”
• “Women feel like they must be exceptional—not just qualified—to be considered for a position.”
A lack of mentoring and networking opportunities was also identified as a challenge for women looking to get ahead in the profession and within their organization. This lack of opportunity is seen from both men and women mentors.
According to the CNBC.com article cited above, “In the aftermath of the #metoo movement, 60 percent of male managers in the U.S. said they are now uncomfortable participating in workplace activities with women such as mentoring, one-on-one meetings, or social outings.” But women don’t only struggle to obtain male mentorship, but also female mentorship. T.E Jayarante, C. Tavris, and G.L Staines coined the term “Queen Bee Syndrome” in 1973. This phenomenon implies that women in authority are biased against other women in the organization because they see them as a threat. Participant quotes included:
• “Women are not good mentors—they often see other women as threats.”
• “I don’t want to deal with the old boys’ club.”
• “I feel awkward asking a male employee to have lunch with me. I don’t want him to think I’m hitting on him.”
• “In some cases, females in top roles are hurdles for those in lower-level roles.”
Bias, both implicit and otherwise, was also seen as a challenge for women. They experienced this bias not only from elected officials, but also from their peers. Among the participant quotes heard:
• “My boss once said about me, ‘She sure likes to be in charge.’ Sometimes people don’t realize how sexist they are being.”
• “If you apply for something you aren’t qualified for, it’s looked upon as being too aggressive. Sometimes you need to tone it back.”
• “Elected bodies are more comfortable hiring managers who have been managers and not taking a chance on an assistant [city manager].”
• “Women have to walk a different line than men so that they don’t get seen as a ‘witch’ even though in a man the same responses would have been acceptable.”
Conclusions and Recommendations
Statistics show that women are serving in local government in high numbers. There is also evidence that women are serving in leadership positions within local government. The hurdle appears to be in hiring women as the chief appointed official for the organization. A recent count of FCCMA membership showed that only one in five city or county managers in Florida are women. As such, a targeted effort should ensue to get more women appointed to the CAO position.
A proposed goal is to increase the percentage of women in CAO positions in Florida to 50 percent by the year 2026. We propose achieving the goal through a four-pronged approach that involves the local government profession, local government elected bodies, city and county professionals, and executive search firms (See Figure 2). The actions we offer in pursuit of this goal translate to efforts any state association, local government jurisdiction, or individual local government manager may make in support of moving women to CAO positions.
SARAH HANNAH-SPURLOCK, ICMA-CM, is nighttime economy manager, Fort Lauderdale, Florida (firstname.lastname@example.org).
JILL SILVERBOARD, ICMA-CM, is deputy county administrator/chief of staff, Pinellas County, Florida (email@example.com).
Endnotes and Resources