By Gail Weniger
After I read the January/February 2015 PM article, “Women Leading Government: Why So Little Progress in 30 Years,” I want to share my thoughts on what is happening with female leaders in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. In the year 2000, there were three female managers in Bucks County. Fifteen years later, the number of females taking the lead management position has risen to 11 of 40 or 27.5 percent.
Noting some commonalities and trends, including women being appointed in smaller communities at lesser salaries, I sought input from my female colleagues in Pennsylvania to identify factors that played a role in their becoming a local government manager and what challenges remain.
They reported these prevalent experiences:
- The hiring process included a female board member.
- With one exception, the managers were hired from within as a promotion or from another community in Bucks County.
- Overt resistance to hire a female was identified in several instances.
- Inappropriate (illegal) questions were part of some interviews, particularly those regarding care of children.
- Women promoted from within were not usually replaced, had challenges with getting an employment agreement, and were paid less than their predecessors.
The Bucks County managers are all college educated and involved in both ICMA and their state professional association. Stephanie Teoli Kuhls, township manager, Middletown, is current president of the Association for Pennsylvania Municipal Management; and Stephanie Mason, township manager, Doylestown, is past president. Of the 11 managers, five have served as president of the Bucks County Consortium of Communities.
It is notable that our male colleagues were instrumental in making this advancement happen, encouraging the women to move up and take leadership roles. A self-assessment of the county’s female managers also reveals that the majority of them list communication as a top strength.
Working hard and earning a reputation for excellence has paid off. One of the highest paid managers in Bucks County is, in fact, a woman. Nine of 11 women have been successful in getting employment agreements. We’d like to see 100 percent, but still, it is progress.
True progress will be the day we don’t have to differentiate and celebrate an accomplishment because of gender. Our group discussion on this topic concluded that women strive for one thing: a level playing field.
Need for More Respect
The belief that women are generally given the same consideration and respect as men is not supported by my findings, although I recognize that the Pennsylvania group is just a small sample, and this was not a scientific research study. Such issues as perceived inexperience due to youth might be attributed to generation gaps. Other issues are clearly gender-related, in my opinion.
Take, for instance, that turning age 62 results in an elected official asking you to rearrange your schedule at a lesser salary to spend time with the grandchildren. And imagine that you, the manager, are excluded from work-related social invites with elected officials and professionals—all who are male—while male subordinates are included.
Even routine meetings can be interesting. How about an executive session where a board member paces and stops to give you an unwelcome shoulder massage or a friendly pat on the backside? Imagine responding to a resident volunteer who doesn’t like your idea, and he publicly exclaims, “Get her husband in here to get her under control.” These are just a few samples of real events that would likely not happen to our male counterparts.
I’ve never been trained on how to counter these moments and until discussing this article as a group of female managers, we’ve never all shared our experiences. As women, we need to do a better job communicating with each other and exploring ways to handle these situations.
Recognizing that your colleagues may have experienced the same, similar, or worse situations is both comforting and frustrating. There is much to be gained, however, by discussing possible solutions. We cannot predict, and may not be able to change, the behavior of others, but we can change ourselves and perhaps develop responses that don’t leave us feeling victimized.
My Experiences Are Good
It’s not all doom and gloom for women leaders. At a personal level, I enjoy a tremendous professional relationship with the Warwick Township Board of Supervisors. This relationship, developed over the past 14 years, is based on mutual trust and respect.
In addition to having a board chair who is a professional female, the township’s solicitor is also female. Two board members who are male are equally supportive of the concept of professional management and support me as a manager.
The staff—particularly traditional male department heads—had some adjustments to make in working with the first female appointed to the manager position in Warwick. One director, for example, was known to say endearing things like, “Don’t worry your pretty little head” to both myself and the board chair.
It’s not an isolated example. The board chair, a partner in a local law firm, was advised by a male volunteer at a joint water and sewer meeting that a question she asked was a legal matter, and she wouldn’t understand how that works. Some of these moments are just an exercise in keeping a straight face. Did I mention a sense of humor helps with this job?
That First Step
How do we take the first step? One example is Ashley Thompson, an education major who was hired as a general summer intern for Warwick Township. She proved to be competent and capable and was exposed to a variety of departments. Perhaps like other students, she was unaware of what local government does or that there were great career choices in the field.
She rerouted her career path and worked for two townships in parks and recreation and planning and zoning. Both managers have supported and encouraged her to continue her education, network, and grow in her position. While her journey may have led to the same place, the support, opportunities, and encouragement should give her the confidence and exposure to be successful for future management opportunities.
The managers in Bucks County frequently noted that luck or being in the right place at the right time was a strong factor in their ascent. Being prepared for such opportunities is the second part of that equation. As current managers, we can identify talent and help the future leaders prepare for management positions.
Chalfont Borough is unique in that four of the past five managers have been women. In fact, current Manager Sandra Zadell was assistant manager to Stephanie Mason before being recommended by the former female manager for her current role. Zadell credits much of her success to her female mentors, but also notes that the Bucks County managers, in general, have been vital in her early transition to becoming a manager.
Sandra is the kind of success story that is possible with the right skills and support. Chalfont officials have not shied away from the unique challenges young families present, but have worked with their managers, creating a flexible environment that has resulted in highly successful outcomes.
The Next Generation
Looking at the next generation of managers, the number of women coming up through the ranks in Bucks County is small, not even approaching 13 percent. Identifying top talent and assisting with the mentoring and growth of exceptionally talented women—and men, too—will prepare the next generation.
Promoting the idea of hiring assistant managers and developing succession plans are topics worthy of discussion in-house as well as within managers’ groups. These issues also require buy-in by the elected officials.
While women have the momentum of this topic and a good working relationship with elected officials, it’s time to move forward, standing next to our male colleagues and elected officials, planning for the future of local government leadership.