Linda interviewed for a city administrator position with the mayor of the community. Following the interview, the mayor turned to the recruiter and said, “She is an excellent candidate, but I am just not comfortable with her. I need someone I can joke around with, and I would be afraid I would say the wrong thing.”

A new city manager moved from out of state into a position in a metropolitan area. A welcoming event was organized by two area city managers. All but two managers from all of the communities in the region were invited to the luncheon. Both of the uninvited managers were women, and one woman’s community shared a border with the new manager’s community.

Kathleen interviewed for a city manager position. When asked about her weakest area, she responded “budgeting,” which surprised the recruiter. Kathleen had personally developed a $100 million capital improvement budget for one of the largest cities in the country. When the recruiter later asked why she said that, Kathleen answered that she was not really weak in budgeting but it was not as strong as her planning and management skills.

Names have been changed to protect the identity of the professionals in the examples above but each of these anecdotes occurred within the past two years, and each represents a piece of the puzzle that baffles women in local government across the country. Only 13 percent of all chief administrative officer (CAO) positions are filled by women, the same percentage as in 1981.1 Why hasn’t the percentage changed in more than 30 years?

The answer is complex, but it does not appear to be related to women’s academic preparation. In 1984, 59 percent of master’s of public administration degrees were earned by men, while 41 percent of MPA degrees were earned by women. By 2006, the balance had shifted, and women earned 59 percent of MPA degrees while the proportion of men had declined to just more than 40 percent.2

Education has traditionally been applauded as a freedom-granting exercise for women around the world, providing increased opportunities and allowing women to make indisputable gains in the workforce. And yet, the statistics indicate that women remain near the bottom of organizational hierarchies, experiencing lower earnings, less authority, and fewer advancement opportunities than their male counterparts.3

So what does account for the imbalance? More importantly, what responsibilities do women have for their own success? And what can managers do to improve women’s chances for achieving the top job?

Challenges to Career Advancement

Currently, 34 percent of all assistant positions, 30 percent of department head positions, and 53 percent of all assistant-to-the-CAO positions are held by women.4 Women are clearly preparing for the CAO position. So why aren’t they getting the job? Here are four reasons.

1. Women believe they have to have all of the necessary experience before they apply for the next position. According to a recent study, men show a greater acceptance for risk from their mid-adolescence to their mid-40s, while women tend to be more risk averse during their child-bearing years—a tendency that peaks around age 30.5

Sheryl Sandberg discusses this issue at great length in her book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead: “Career progression often depends upon taking risks and advocating for oneself—traits that girls are discouraged from exhibiting.” Furthermore, she writes that, “The pipeline that supplies the educated workforce is chock full of women at the entry level, but by the time that same pipeline is filling leadership positions, it is overwhelmingly stocked with men.”6

Women in local government management often relate stories about their initial reluctance to apply for the top job. DeKalb, Illinois, City Manager Anne Marie Gaura (2010 population 44,030) was appointed to her first CAO position in 2000 in Montgomery, Illinois (2010 population 18,438), a rapidly growing community in the Chicago metropolitan area.

Prior to that, she had been serving as the assistant village manager in a much larger community in the area. Though the move to Montgomery was a normal career progression, Gaura did not think she was ready for the CAO position until a colleague and an attorney familiar with her skills encouraged her to apply. Appointed Montgomery’s first manager,7 she guided the community’s rapid growth for the next 12 years.

Women tend to work longer to prove themselves before they seek the same opportunities as men. Dierdre Woods, former associate dean and chief information officer for the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, notes that women who are offered promotions “generally feel they need to know 80 percent to 90 percent of their current job before they feel ready to step into a new role.”

She added that if a woman is smart and knowledgeable, “probably somewhere closer to 40 percent or 50 percent” is what she needs. Men, however, feel no such restraints. They will start thinking about their next promotion right after they start their new promotion.”8

Because women are more commonly found in the assistant CAO role, they are often asked to serve as the acting manager when a vacancy in the top job occurs. Women tend to take themselves out of the running for the top job early in the process, declaring to the elected officials that they are not interested in the position, perhaps because they do not feel ready for the job.

Then they serve as the acting manager and find that they can do the job, they enjoy doing the job, and now they want the job. Unfortunately, they have taken themselves out of consideration, and it is hard to be placed back in the recruitment process.

2. Women face certain challenges while trying to achieve a work/family harmony. For years, it was a commonly held belief that women could not both raise a family and have a successful career; however, legislation such as the Family Medical Leave Act, the Equal Pay Act of 1963, and Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 are all aimed at increasing female participation in the workforce and have helped address some of the barriers for women.

In The New York Times article titled “Why Gender Equality Stalled,” Stephanie Coontz points out that “as late as 1977, two-thirds of Americans believed that it was much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family. By 1994, two-thirds of Americans rejected this notion.”9

Furthermore, Coontz cites a 2011 study by the Center for Work and Family at Boston College that found that 65 percent of the fathers interviewed felt there should be equality in caregiving for their children.10 In addition, a PEW Research poll in 2010 reports that 72 percent of men and women aged 18–29 believed that the best marriage is one in which both the husband and wife work and take care of the house.11 The data clearly shows attitudes are changing.

Can serving as a CAO be compatible with having a family? Can the sometimes punishing schedule of a CAO be balanced with a private life? In a talk to assistant managers, former Flossmoor, Illinois, Village Manager Peggy Glassford indicated she actually had more control over her schedule as a manager than when she was an assistant manager.

This makes sense since the CAO is the head of the organization. Of course, CAOs have to be available to elected officials, residents, and senior staff as well as respond to emergency situations; however, the day-to-day schedule can often be adjusted to accommodate periodic family activities.

One theory regarding the lack of women in the top position is that women take themselves out of the market in order to focus on family and childrearing. A 2012 study of women in the city management profession in Illinois, however, found that a majority of CAOs and assistant CAOs in Illinois have children.

The study revealed that 40 percent (n=12) of respondents (assistants) want to be a CAO and already have children while only 16 percent (n=6) of respondents who have children do not want to be a CAO. Also, 16 percent (n=6) of those who do not know if they want to be a CAO do not have children.12 These individuals may be unsure about becoming a CAO because of the potential challenges of a work-life balance since they do not currently have children.

Most of the respondents who report a career goal of reaching the CAO position have children. This indicates that having children or having a family does not directly influence their career goal. While children may not deter a woman from having an ambitious career goal, there is no question that balancing career and family is a hot topic among women and men in all professional sectors.

This article’s author Rachel Lange-Skaggs along with Dr. Kimberly Nelson further researched this topic and found that 42 percent of women achieve the CAO position when their children are 10 or older; however, 43 percent have children under age 8 when they start the top job. Thus, in Illinois the research revealed that having a family is not the only factor deterring women from the top job.

While demanding, a career as a local government CAO has some advantages when compared to some private sector executive positions. These advantages include little to no travel; often living in or near the community being served, thereby reducing commuting time and improving opportunities to attend school events, to go home for dinner before night meetings, and so forth; and the opportunity to bring children to community festivals and events that must be attended anyway.

3. Women who are assertive can be perceived differently than men who are assertive (i.e., the assertiveness dilemma). Women must straddle a difficult line with respect to assertiveness. If they are considered to be overly aggressive, they will not be well received by their supervisors and/or subordinates.

Alternatively, if they are thought to be “too collaborative,” they could be perceived as not having the skills to lead—such as not being tough enough. As Sandberg notes in Lean In, “success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women.”13 Never has this dilemma been more apparent than in the following study:

In a 2003 experiment involving MBA students, Columbia Business School Professor Frank Flynn and New York University Professor Cameron Anderson distributed a Harvard Business School study about a real-life successful entrepreneur named Heidi Roizen. Half of the students were given the case study with Heidi’s real name, and the other half were given the study with Heidi’s name changed to Howard.

The students were then surveyed on their attitudes toward Heidi/Howard. They rated Heidi and Howard equally competent but considered Howard to be a more appealing colleague. Heidi was seen as selfish and not “the type of person you would want to hire or work for.”14 The good news is that Professor Flynn conducted another study, and when students personally knew the leaders they were rating, the gender discrepancy nearly disappeared.

The fact that women are not better represented in the upper ranks of local government management is concerning, particularly when looking at the study by Robert Schuhmann and Richard Fox that indicates how female city managers bring to the table different priorities, voice different policy preferences, and are perceived to be more responsive to their constituents than are male city managers.15

Good leadership in local government is dependent on an individual’s commitment and desire to serve the community. “A Study in Leadership: Women Do It Better Than Men,” by Zenger Folkman in 2012, found that on 12 of 16 competencies, women were rated more positively by total respondents—managers, peers, directs reports, and others.

A preconception often held is that women are better at nurturing competencies, such as developing others and building relationships. Interestingly, the competencies that scored the largest differences between men and women were taking initiative, practicing self-development, and exhibiting integrity/honesty.16 Women consistently scored higher than men in these competencies.

While it is important for women to be aware of how they may be perceived, they should not overthink this. Approaching leadership and management with a confident and professional demeanor backed up with hard work and ethical conduct has served women leaders well.

4. A woman’s career progression may be hampered by the attitudes of hiring authorities and supervisors. Women may be eager to take the top job but those with hiring authority may have misconceptions about women’s abilities. In 2013, the ICMA Task Force on Women in the Profession surveyed 4,443 randomly sampled members. The survey had a 26 percent response rate.

Of the women who responded, 53 percent indicated that on more than one occasion they had received treatment or comments from elected officials that were inappropriate or disrespectful, and 35 percent indicated that the same had happened with a supervisor. In that same survey, 28 percent indicated that they were questioned on their ability to balance work and other personal commitments, and 30 percent of respondents saw their gender as a future obstacle to career advancement.

A report published in 2014 from the ICMA Task Force on Woman in the Profession noted that executive recruiters have confirmed that inappropriate and, in many cases, illegal questions—questions about marital status, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, and children—are at times asked of both male and female candidates. If a male candidate is married and has children, it is viewed as a strength for his candidacy; however, if a female candidate is married and has children, it is often viewed as a liability to her candidacy.

Another troubling statistic from the ICMA survey involved inclusion in formal and informal gatherings of city and county managers. Thirty-one percent of respondents indicated they have been excluded from a professional group, outing, or event because of their gender.17

Readiness Checklist

The four challenges outlined above are factors that contribute to women not reaching the top job. The following section provides a readiness checklist that focuses on (1) what steps women can take to ensure that they are prepared for the next leap in their career and to ensure that they are not holding themselves back; (2) what managers can do to prepare women for that next career move; (3) what ICMA can do to guarantee that women are getting the formal and informal preparation they need to advance and that they are included in the formal and informal networks in which men are naturally included; and (4) what all of us can do to address the stereotypes we might have regarding women and leadership.

Steps Women Need to Take

Effectively assess your skills. Certain key skills and experiences are needed for success in the CAO position. These areas may vary, but generally they include budgeting/finance, board relations, economic development, and community involvement. Conduct an honest assessment of your skill levels and experience in these areas and then talk with your manager about gaining experience in areas where you may be lacking.

Because women tend to over prepare, discuss your readiness with trusted colleagues, recruiters, ICMA Senior Advisers (formerly Range Riders), or other local government professionals to be sure that you are not falling into the trap of believing you need to have every box checked before you can apply for a position.

If your boss unexpectedly retires or resigns, do not immediately take yourself out of the running for the vacated position. In fact, if you must make an immediate decision and are undecided, indicate that you are interested. It is easier to withdraw a short time later than to get back into the process.

Make your intentions known—discreetly. Be sure that recruiters, ICMA Senior Advisers, and, if possible, your supervisors, are aware of your career plans. This does not mean that you are ready to leave or are unhappy with your current position, but it does mean that you have career goals and want to eventually move forward with them.

Interestingly, a 2011 Catalyst study of “high-potential” private sector executives shows that women’s compensation growth is faster when they remain with the same employer where they have proven their performance. Men tend to increase their compensation when they change jobs, with their compensation increasing based on potential.

According to that study, women must adopt different strategies to advance, and these include proactively networking with influential “others” to make their achievements known. In general, it is assumed that men want to advance, whereas women need to make their intentions known.18

If you do not feel encouraged by your manager, look for opportunities outside your organization to validate your skills. These can include working with the chamber of commerce, serving as your community’s representative on intergovernmental organizations, and leading internal task forces that provide for interaction with key department heads who can later attest to your skills and abilities, as well as provide you with critical feedback.

Navigate the assertiveness dilemma. Self-awareness is always an important trait—understanding how others perceive us can be enlightening and a key to career advancement. Honest self-assessment, however, can be challenging.

Ideally, your manager (if you are an assistant) is providing you with important feedback; other options include a trusted mentor who can candidly advise you, or a network of colleagues and friends with whom you can discuss situations that have not gone well and what you might have done differently.

It is important to recognize negative patterns—if certain approaches are consistently yielding negative results, you must question yourself. Remember that it cannot always be the fault of the other person. It is also important to pay attention to your presentation skills.

According to Peggy Klaus in a 2011 The New York Times article, women who are concerned with appearing too assertive may at times have an “upward vocal inflection,” which minimizes a declarative statement and “convey[s] weakness, uncertainty, and request for approval.”19

Leaders who are calm with well-developed listening skills are very effective, and this is a quality that employees and elected officials typically value in their CAO. Employees are more likely to bring bad news to the leader who does not “kill the messenger.”

Many organizations’ crises could have been avoided if employees believed they could approach the leader and speak honestly about what was happening. Furthermore, elected officials express frustration with the CAO who is “defensive” when asked questions or who becomes “agitated” when criticized.

There has been clear evidence that women have a difficult line to walk with respect to assertiveness and leadership; however, a consistently professional and approachable demeanor from a leader is welcome regardless of gender. When you are faced with an all-male audience, relying on this consistently professional and confident demeanor and effectively ignoring your gender (and theirs) will serve you well.

Partner with your partner. Whom you marry or choose as a significant other does have an impact on your career. The unique role as child bearers creates workplace complications for women that men do not face. Once the maternity leave issue is resolved, however, the differences should fade—provided women have support on the home front.

A 2009 survey by Scott Hall and Shelley MacDermid found that only 9 percent of people in dual-earner marriages said that they shared housework, child care, and breadwinning evenly.20

Furthermore, while the amount of time married fathers spend on housework has increased from 4.5 hours per week in 1965 to 10 hours in 2000, the largest increase in time occurred between 1965 and 1985; since 1985 the increase has not been significant.21

Women need to have honest conversations with their partners or prospective partners about child care and household responsibilities—issues that will have an impact on the careers of both. As Sheryl Sandberg said in a 2011 speech at Barnard College’s commencement, “the most important career decision you’re going to make is whether or not you have a life partner and who that partner is. If you pick someone who’s willing to share the burdens and joys of your personal life, you’re going to go further.”22

Develop informal networking groups and join professional organizations. Sharing strategies and stories about achieving work-family harmony, moving up the career ladder, and meeting the daily demands of a career in local government makes an excellent foundation for an informal group get-together. Consider reaching out to colleagues to start the conversation.

Casual luncheon conversations can provide you with new knowledge to resolve a problem you are experiencing. You will gain additional insights, pick up some coping strategies, and most likely develop friendships that will last a lifetime.

It is also important to join and be active in professional associations, which provide further opportunities for leadership as well as for networking with colleagues and future employers. Such participation gives you access to industry experts such as recruiters, attorneys, and other consultants who can become part of your network and provide you with valuable advice.

Involvement in professional organizations is also good for your community and your organization as you will invariably learn new trends in the wide variety of disciplines represented in local government. Casual luncheon conversations can provide you with new knowledge for a problem you are facing.

Finally, working with elected officials on intergovernmental organizations can raise your profile in your region and put you on their radar if they are looking for their next CAO.

Necessary Steps for Managers, ICMA, and All Professionals

Mentor consistently. Managers need to ensure that they are preparing female assistants in the same way that they are preparing male assistants. Are the female assistants coordinating the budget process? Are they included in collective bargaining strategy sessions and key economic development meetings? Are they included in discussions about board relations issues?

In a study of women in local government in Illinois, more than 80 percent stated that having a mentor was helpful or very helpful in overcoming obstacles to the top job.23 Only 21 percent of the mentors were female, indicating that male mentors have been very helpful to women in the profession.

Question personal reactions. If a manager perceives a female assistant as being aggressive, he or she should ask, “If a man said or did the same thing, would I have the same reaction?” Be aware of your actions when chairing a meeting.

Women often comment that their ideas or suggestions are not heard until a man makes a similar contribution to the discussion. We all bring biases to the workplace, and it is important to examine them.

Practice inclusion. Ensure that female colleagues are not being excluded from formal and/or informal professional gatherings.

Showcase women managers. ICMA and others involved in planning professional events—panelists, speakers, and moderators—can work to ensure that women are approached to participate.

Continue the conversation. The percentage of women in local government at the CAO level has not changed in 30 years. The needle has been stuck at 13 percent. This is a complex issue rooted in societal and cultural norms and expectations that are slow to change.

But by any standard, the low percentage of women in the top job is unquestionably depriving our communities and organizations of talented leaders. We need to continue the conversation, recognizing the role that women and men play in advancing women in local government.


HEIDI VORHEES is co-owner of GovHR USA, Northbrook, Illinois; and RACHEL LEE-SKAGGS is a mangement analyst for the Village of Schaumburg, Illinois.


Endnotes and Resources

1 National Research Center, I. (2013). ICMA Task Force on Women. Retrieved from International City/County Management Association.

2 LeAnn Beaty and Trenton J. Davis, “Gender Disparity in Professional City Management: Making the Case for Enhancing Leadership Curriculum,” Journal of Public Affairs Education 18, no. 4 (2012): 624.

3 LeAnn Beaty and Trenton J. Davis, “Gender Disparity in Professional City Management: Making the Case for Enhancing Leadership Curriculum,” Journal of Public Affairs Education 18, no. 4 (2012): 624.

4 National Research Center, I. (2013). ICMA Task Force on Women. Retrieved from International City/County Management Association.

5 Eckel Catherine C. and Grossman, Philip J., Men, Women and Risk Aversion: Experimental Evidence (2008). Handbook of Experimental Economics Results, Vol. 1, CH.113, pp. 1061-1073, C. Plott V. Smith, eds, New York, Elsevier, 2008. Available at SSRN:

6 Sandberg, S. (2013). Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

7 Anne Marie was Montgomery’s first village manager. It previously had a village administrator but the village board upgraded the position after the administrator left.

8 Woods, D. (2012, July 23) Wharton: University of Pennsylvania. Retrived from “Why Do Women Shy Away From Promotions?

9 Stephanie Coontz, “Why Gender Equality Failed,” The New York Times, February 16, 2013,

10 Brad Harrington, Fred Van Deusen, and Beth Humberd, The New Dad: Caring, Committed and Conflicted (Boston: Boston College Center for Work and Family, 2011), 23.

11 Pew Research, “The Decline of Marriage and Rise of New Families,” November 18, 2010,

12 Lange, R., & Nelson, K. (2014). Women in Local Government: The Case of Illinois. Public Voices: Women in Public Service Symposium Vol. XIII Number 2, 89-106.

13 Sandberg, Lean In, 40.

14 Flynn, F., & Anderson, C. (2003). Heidi vs. Howard: An Examination of Success and Likeability. Columbia Business School and New York University.

15 Fox, R., & Schuhmann, R. (2001). Mentoring Experiences of Women City Managers: Are Women Disadvantaged? The American Review of Public Administration, 381-392 and; Guy, M. E., & Newman, M. A. (2004). Women’s Jobs, Men’s Jobs: Sex Segregation and Emotional Labor. Public Administration Review, 289-298.

16 A Study in Leadership: Women Do It Better Than Men (Orem, Utah: Zenger Folkman, 2012),

17 National Research Center, I. (2013). ICMA Task Force on Women. Retrieved from International City/County Management Association.

18 Nancy M. Carter and Christine Silva, The Myth of the Ideal Worker: Does Doing All the Right Things Really Get Women Ahead? (New York: Catalyst, 2011), 9,

19 Peggy Klaus, “Don’t Fret. Just Ask for What You Need,” The New York Times, July 9, 2011,

20 Scott Hall and Shelley MacDermid, “A Typology of Dual Earner Marriages Based on Work and Family Arrangements,” Journal of Family and Economic Issues 30, no. 3 (2009): 215‒225.

21 Changing Rhythms of American Family Life (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2006); and Sandberg, Lean In.

22 “Transcript and Video of Speech by Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer, Facebook,” Barnard College Commencement, Tuesday, May 17, 2011, New York City,

23 Lange, R., & Nelson, K. (2014). Women in Local Government: The Case of Illinois. Public Voices: Women in Public Service Symposium Vol. XIII Number 2, 89-106.




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