Image of people standing in the shape of a bullhorn

Research conducted by the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership in 2020 revealed something significant: when women take their place as leaders in politics and public life, they are able to authentically exercise leadership in a manner that represents key ingredients that successfully drive economies, ensure stability, and improve quality of life not just for women and girls, but for society as a whole. While women represent 50% of the global population, the progress being made to attract, retain, and elevate women in roles of influence, shaping and managing policy, demonstrates persistent gaps obstructing from reaching a true representative government.

Because most governments only began incorporating women into the policy decision arena about 100 years ago — and regardless of marital, geographic, or educational differences—women administrators experience a common thread of working within both formal and informal structures populated and created almost entirely by men. The styles of management, communication, behaviors — not to mention the aspirations, traditions, legacies, and rules of the game — all have grown from a male-dominated and -oriented experience, culture, and career field. However, if women sincerely want our municipal organizations to be a reflection and representation of the people they serve, including the 50/50 ratio, we must be intentional about their design.

Women must strategically approach and prioritize in a tactical manner developing a comprehensive workforce plan specifically focused on gender-balancing and diversifying the municipal organization.

Step 1: Organizational Soul-Searching.

Indexing how the municipal “box” is uniquely framed along with its contents, it is imperative that women in the public sector are in the driver seat initiating and conducting an internal audit; analyzing the current structure, policies, and standards; illuminating current and past obstacles; examining tolerated and traditional behaviors, including experienced bias; and documenting in our own voice how disproportionate resistance is generated and sustained.

Step 2: Frame with Foresight.

Quantifying gaps and impacts, women need to work together to establish an organizational vision for the expectations of workforce attraction, retention, and elevation. This should include a targeted action plan to measure and guide future policy decisions, considering what is needed to purposefully shift a cultural environment toward equality, and outlining necessary resource allocation.

Step 3: Building the Foundation, One Contributor at a Time.

Preventing “bait and switch” results, sustainable systematic changes are achieved through organization-wide alignment from the ground up. An organization cannot successfully adopt change unless its people are invited to the conversation and understand and support the reasons for creating the change. Everyone at every level (elected, appointed, volunteers, and residents) must be aligned, believe in the purpose, and value how their personal responsibility will contribute to the cultural transformation.

Step 4: Progress Is a Work in Progress.

Culture is created by consistent behaviors either disciplined, tolerated, or rewarded. Therefore, an integral part of implementing strategies outlined in a municipal organization’s workforce plan is embracing iteration. To ensure long-term success, clear expectations need to be communicated through training and reinforced and held accountable through ongoing performance standards across the municipal organization.

To capture the vision of how we want the future to be, as community leaders, women must take charge. We can no longer leave others to determine our value. This is our moment, our call to action. We must intentionally plan an assembly of strategies to attract, retain, and elevate a workforce that truly reflects the whole community that it is charged to serve.



LIZ HARTSGROVE is assistant town administrator of Bourne, Massachusetts.

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