ICMA has put an emphasis on advancing women in the local government profession since the mid-1970s. From its very first Task Force on Women in the Profession to the ongoing equity efforts and resources available today, ICMA is committed to moving the needle, now more than ever.
The status of women in the profession today directly reflects the positive impact of ICMA and other organizations’ efforts, as well as the changing hearts and minds of those within local government and within communities who demand better representation from their governing boards and the professionals that serve them.
The Task Force That Started It All
Fostering an environment for women to flourish in leadership and management roles is critical work that takes buy-in from everyone. ICMA uses a multifaceted approach to help advance women in the local government profession through a combination of task forces, research, events, regularly released content, professional development opportunities, strategic partnerships, and other resources.
This work garnered sharper focus with ICMA’s first Task Force on Women in the Profession in 1974. This group evaluated the status of women in local government management and made recommendations to the ICMA Executive Board on how ICMA could help open the profession to more women and equitably support the women already in local government management. The 1974 task force identified critical pre-entry and post-entry barriers that made both entering and advancing in local government management significantly more difficult for women.
The work of the original task force was then revisited in 2012 with the second installment of the Task Force on Women in the Profession. ICMA’s 99th president and second female president, Bonnie Svrcek, spearheaded the resurrection of the task force in an effort to give new life to the original task force’s initiatives to remove barriers to the profession, advance women to senior-level roles, and provide greater equity to women already in these roles. To further drive the goals and recommendations of both task forces, ICMA continues to put a consistent priority on advancing women through a variety of avenues.
How ICMA Continues to Carry the Torch for Women
ICMA provides on-demand stories, updates, and resources on gender balance in the form of blogs, articles, podcasts, and webinars that both inspire and inform readers and listeners about the challenges and triumphs of women in local government management and what necessary changes need to be made in order to see more women break through the proverbial glass ceiling. SheLeadsGov, ICMA’s resource hub for content dedicated to advancing gender balance in the profession, posts regular content to keep the conversation going. Topics like “The Path to Developing Women Chief Administrative Officers,” “Women to Know: The Next Generation Is Already Leading the Way,” “Leading While Female Q&A,” and so much more provide an all-encompassing view of how to better understand and support gender equality efforts.
“SheLeadsGov means to me that ‘she’ finally is recognized as an integral part of local government leadership and that ICMA has acted upon many of the recommendations made by the Task Force on Women in the Profession nearly a decade ago.” —Bonnie Svrcek, Former City Manager, Lynchburg, Virginia
ICMA both hosts and takes part in events where women can network, find crucial support, and learn about pathways to success directly from women who have broken through the inevitable barriers to entry and advancement. ICMA features SheLeadsGov-presented segments each year at the ICMA Annual Conference, hosts annual Women’s Luncheons, sponsored the For the Greater Good Women’s Summit, and sponsored a number of other powerful events geared toward women’s success in local government management. ICMA is also careful to diversify its panels at all events in order to showcase an equitable mix of men, women, and individuals from underrepresented groups.
Filling the professional pipeline with more qualified female candidates is a critical part of contributing to the future of women in local government. While inspiring content and events keep the conversation alive, encouraging and enabling women to seek careers in local government management is what will really turn the tide for the next generation of leaders. This is why ICMA provides leadership development opportunities and sponsors scholarships that give women the tools to break into the profession with confidence. One of ICMA’s most unique and direct ways it contributes to filling the local government pipeline is through its Local Government Management Fellowship, a career-development opportunity for recent MPA/MPP graduates to be placed in full-time management-track local government positions. More than half of those chosen to participate in ICMA’s competitive Local Government Management Fellowship program are women, ensuring that there is equal representation in this unique learning opportunity to ignite participants’ careers.
Equity work cannot be done alone, which is why ICMA has formed strategic partnerships with other organizations that are focused on fostering a more equitable future for women in the profession. The League of Women in Government, Women Leading Government, The Legacy Project, and the 16/50 Project are all organizations that ICMA works with directly to spearhead gender balance initiatives.
“Knowing that the Michigan Municipal League’s 16/50 Project, and similar programs around the country, are helping women attain higher professional thresholds is one of the greatest joys in my work.” —Summer Minnick, Deputy Executive Director, Michigan Municipal League
While the multifaceted work being done is important, it is nothing without having the facts. ICMA puts an emphasis on knowing both the past and current state of women in the profession, so we have a better grasp on what needs to be done to continue making improvements. The National Research Center and ICMA’s survey on career advancement, “Near the Top: Understanding Gender Imbalance in Local Government,” and ICMA’s regularly released data on ICMA women in the profession are great sources of data gathered to help achieve a better understanding of where women stand in local government, both yesterday and today.
Let’s Talk Numbers
Through the work of ICMA and other organizations, paired with an ongoing societal mind shift, the percentage of female CAOs is steadily increasing as the years go on. When ICMA began its efforts toward advancing women in the profession in the mid-70s, only one percent of CAOs were women. That percentage has steadily increased to 18.6 percent as of 2020, after experiencing a slight dip from 20.1 percent in 2009 and 19.8 percent in 2012. While it seems like these efforts have been slow-moving for local government, it is important to recognize that we are not alone in this struggle. All industries across the board are seeing gender equality seemingly move at a snail’s pace. Globally, the percentage of women in senior management roles rose to 29 percent in 2019 and held that position in 2020, while the United States lagged behind with only 21 percent of women in C-Suite roles. While the gap may not be as wide for some industries, the disparities across the board are evident and cannot be ignored.
“Knowledge is key, and you can’t change opinions without data and facts. The SheLeadsGov and gender-balance initiatives help share vital records and data points that help start a conversation like, “Here’s what we know…” and “This is how we can make it better.” —Brooke Smith, MIS, CMC, Chapter President, Utah Women Leading Gov
To dive deeper and gain a better understanding of the state of women in the profession, ICMA partnered with the National Research Center and the League of Women in Government to launch a Survey on Career Advancement in 2019. This research involved 1,870 local government professionals who gave their unique responses and perspectives on the state of women in local government management. The data gained from this 2019 survey is directly compared to 2013 research data taken during the beginning of ICMA’s second installment of the Task Force on Women in the Profession. The key findings to be highlighted in this research are female participation in ICMA, the priority put on gender diversity, efforts surrounding gender diversity, communities with a history of female CAOs, gender bias both experienced and reported, gender disparities in leadership opportunities, and barriers to entry in leadership roles.
From 2013 to 2019, there was a 77-percent increase in female participation in ICMA, bringing ICMA’s list of female professionals to 46 percent. This significant increase in equitable representation has resulted in more female-focused initiatives spearheaded by ICMA, which will trickle down into the communities that ICMA serves, naturally leading to more female representation in the profession as a whole.
Seven in 10 respondents noted that gender diversity is seen as either a high or medium priority in their communities, with only three in 10 regarding the priority as high. Diving even deeper, male respondents were more likely to feel that there are gender diversity efforts being executed in their communities than female respondents. While interesting, this data can be interpreted simply. Men, for one reason or another, are more likely to believe that gender diversity is a priority in their communities. This can be explained by the natural desire for one to see their community as fair and equitable, when that may not be the case. Men unfortunately have the luxury of not needing an accurate pulse on gender equality efforts that their community is (or isn’t) engaging in, but those rose-colored glasses can be easily set aside for women since they are the ones who are directly impacted by their community’s efforts, or lack thereof, to seek gender equality.
Arguably one of the most promising findings of this study is the increase in the number of respondents that reported having a female CAO at some point in their community, from 39 percent in 2013 to 54 percent in 2019. In addition, the percentage of female elected officials jumped from 26 to 36 percent, while the percentage of female senior managers hopped from 34 to 38. While seeing the numbers climb is something to be celebrated, women have continued to report two to three times more instances of bias than their male counterparts, with a significant increase in total reports as a whole. Arguably directly correlated to the bias women experience is the greater opportunity for advancement for men. Nineteen percent of female respondents still had not received a leadership/management position, while only nine percent of male respondents have yet to receive such a role. Male respondents were also twice as likely to turn down a leadership opportunity than their female counterparts. While the needle is most certainly moving, these are disparities that cannot be ignored.
“Recognizing that communities are stronger when there is inclusive leadership of every demographic is critical to our collective leadership in communities throughout the world.” —Bonnie Svrcek
The discrepancies covered in this study do not go unnoticed for both male and female respondents, though. Eighty-five percent of women and 58 percent of men agreed that there are significantly more barriers to career advancement in local government for women than that of men. Acknowledging the disparities can be the catalyst of real change, but where do we go from here?
Where Do We Go from Here?
Although significant progress has been made, there is still much work to be done for women to have equal representation in both local government, and other leadership roles as well. ICMA continues to make gender equality a priority, and the time has long passed for other local government organizations to follow suit.
To support these efforts and continue to close the gap, it is important to know the facts, start or continue the conversation, and provide support where it is needed most. Learn the facts by conducting research in your own organization and community, while staying up to date on research that other organizations like ICMA publishes. Start and continue the conversation by creating and sharing gender equality-focused content to keep people informed and open the floor for discussion. Finally, provide critical support where it is needed most by helping fill the pipeline with the next generation of female local government managers in your community through leading them to leadership development opportunities and acting as a coach or mentor. These are just a few of the many ways that you can help ICMA move the needle, and if you are not quite sure where to start, SheLeadsGov has a litany of on-demand resources at your disposal.
“SheLeadsGov and gender-balance initiatives help open doors, fix broken rungs, and shatter the glass ceiling for future growth in local government. Together we are making a difference.” —Brooke Smith
Equity work is a marathon, not a sprint, and can be taxing at times. While it can be frustrating to see the needle move slowly, that does not mean that we are not entitled to celebrate the wins. Local government is not alone in the struggle to achieve gender equality, but unlike other professions, local government has a unique perspective and ability to set the precedent for their respective communities to follow. Consider yourself a direct representation of the local government profession as a whole. If you make gender equality a top priority and show equal representation in your organization’s leadership roles, then the community you serve will naturally follow suit.
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