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At a forum in 2017, a panel asked a female CAO the question, “Why is it an issue that women are underrepresented in local government?” She responded, “Females have a unique perspective. Females are under more scrutiny, especially in senior government roles. We need to equal out the balance in government and all workplaces.” The panel was made up of CAOs, councillors, and department heads—all women.

It’s been said that around 75% of women are caregivers, and therefore they lead differently, can build consensus, and can see the big picture. We need this balance in the public sector. As a woman at the end of my working career, I was one of the few women in the role of city manager when I began. I found assistance from both female and male colleagues who were supportive of my success. Going on my twentieth year as a city manager, women leaders in all areas of local government are becoming more prevalent; however, the stereotype of women not being tough enough for the role still exists.

As the title of this article alludes to, the words, “A woman? It will never work,” were spoken to a recruiter somewhat recently when he put my name forward as a candidate for CAO of a large urban county in Alberta. The more disturbing piece of the story is that it was uttered by a female member of council. Unfortunately, this stereotype persists, though we do see the tide turning as more and more women are taking up the position as the head of organizations.

I have found that as a woman my interpersonal skill set has assisted me greatly. However, I do attribute these skills as being handed down from my father (also a CAO), where my mother passed on to me her organizational skill set. I believe that women tend to lead differently, and diversity of all types is badly needed in local government. In a recent Harvard Business Review article on the changing landscape of executive presence, the author stated, “Women and people of color no longer have to fit into a mold not fashioned for them. But they must still cultivate a confident, decisive, polished, and commanding persona.” As a leader in local government, we are continually on display and every decision we make is public. We are judged and examined. We must set the tone at the top; this means working in an ethical and thoughtful manner in everything we do.

Am I a better leader because I am a woman? I don’t know the answer to this question; however, I know I am different than the majority that came before me (a woman in a male-dominated field). A variety in leadership in local government leads to innovation in the organization and that’s a good thing.



ANN M. MITCHELL is chief administrative officer/city manager of Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada.

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