Five strong women, smiling after speaking on a panel

To truly leverage diversity and advance all women, leaders need to do more than evaluate the surface strengths and blanket needs of women as an overall group. Data indicate that different groups of women are impacted by societal expectations and public policies, and according to intersectionality theory, women of color in local government face unique challenges that are shaped by their intersecting identities.

At the 2023 National Forum for Black Public Administrators (NFBPA) Annual Forum, the ICMA SheLeadsGov panel session, "The Impact of Intersectionality and Intentional Leadership on the Advancement of Women," examined the impact of intersectionality in the workplace, explored how different groups of women are impacted by societal expectations and public policies, and inspired deliberate and purposeful actions to address biases and advance future women leaders.

The session began with a presentation by Laura Savage, ICMA senior program manager, who then led a panel discussion with Wanda Barnard-Bailey, Ph.D., deputy city manager, Chesapeake, Virginia; Dr. Natasha S. Hampton, senior consultant, Imagine That Performance; Kimberly J. Sowell, Ph.D., county manager, Durham County, North Carolina; and Lindsey Wilson, Ph.D., director of equity and inclusion, Dallas, Texas.

Women are Leaving their Organizations

Conducted in partnership with, McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace report is the largest study on the state of women in corporate America. Since 2015 they have studied gender diversity in the workplace and their 2022 report highlights how the pandemic has changed what women want from their companies, including the growing importance of opportunity, flexibility, employee well-being, and diversity, equity, and inclusion.

At the beginning of the session, Laura Savage shared that McKinsey’s research team collected information from 333 participating organizations employing more than 12 million people, surveyed more than 40,000 employees, and conducted interviews with women of diverse identities, including women of color, LGBTQ+ women, and women with disabilities.

One important theme the Women in the Workplace report reveals is women leaders are requiring more from their companies and increasingly willing to switch jobs to get it. Three primary factors are driving their decisions to leave:

  1. Women leaders want to advance, but they face stronger headwinds than men.

Women leaders are as likely as men at their level to want to be promoted and aspire to senior-level roles. However, they experience microaggressions that undermine their authority and signal that it will be harder for them to advance. Thirty seven percent of women leaders have had a coworker get credit for their idea versus 27 percent of men leaders, and they are two times as likely to be mistaken for someone more junior resulting in having colleagues question their judgment or imply that they are not qualified for their jobs.

Women leaders are also more likely to report that personal characteristics, such as their gender or being a parent, have played a role in them being denied or passed over for a raise, promotion, or chance to get ahead.

  1. Women leaders are overworked and under-recognized.

Compared to men at their level, women leaders do more to support employee well-being and foster diversity, equity, and inclusion—work that dramatically improves retention and employee satisfaction but is not formally rewarded in most companies. Data indicate women are 2 times as likely as men leaders to spend substantial time on DEI work and 40 percent say their DEI work is not acknowledged at all in performance reviews.

Spending time and energy on work that is not recognized could make it harder for women leaders to advance. The survey reports that 43 percent of women are burned out, compared to only 31 percent of men at their level, indicating women leaders are stretched thinner than men in leadership.

  1. Women leaders want a better work culture.

Women leaders are significantly more likely than men leaders to leave their jobs because they want more flexibility or because they want to work for a company that is more committed to employee well-being and diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Forty nine percent of women leaders say flexibility is one of the top three things they consider when deciding whether to join or stay with a company versus 34 percent of men leaders and they are 1.5 times as likely as men at their level to have left a previous job because they wanted to work for a company that was more committed to DEI.

And over the past two years of the pandemic, these factors have only become more meaningful to women leaders.

Leaders Must Understand Intersectionality

Lindsey Wilson shared that Kimberlé Crenshaw, a legal scholar, coined the term intersectionality in 1989. It refers to the interconnected nature of social categories such as race, ethnicity, gender, class, and sexuality, and how they interact to create unique experiences of discrimination and privilege. Intersectionality is behavioral, cultural, invisible lived and learned experiences that overlap and intersect marginalized individuals or groups. It is often discussed as a part of daily life, but it’s especially prevalent, albeit sometimes overlooked, at work.

The panelists agree that in local government, intersectionality is crucial to understanding the experiences of groups of employees, community stakeholders, businesses, and ecosystems. However, women from marginalized communities, such as women of color, LGBTQ+ women, and women with disabilities, face compounded discrimination and violence. Gender imbalance is not just the result of individual actions but is also the result of systemic barriers that can include laws, policies, and practices that discriminate against women. By taking an intentional approach, local government leaders can identify and address these systemic barriers and create more representative and diverse governing bodies that better reflect the communities they serve.

Incorporating Intersectionality as a Leader

Organizations must enable all leaders to lead with intentionality, to become more purposeful and inclusive. Here are some best practices for local government leaders looking to incorporate intersectionality with a holistic approach into their policies and practices:

1. Recognize the unique experiences of marginalized groups

Intersectionality recognizes that people's social identities can overlap, creating compounding experiences of discrimination. Without it, women are negatively affected. Local government leaders should recognize the unique challenges faced by women, such as women of color, LGBTQ+ women, and women with disabilities, and develop policies and programs that address their needs.

2. Use an intersectional lens to analyze policies and practices

Local governments should use an intersectional lens to analyze their policies and practices and identify any systemic barriers to gender equality. This can include laws, policies, and practices that discriminate against women from marginalized communities. Natasha Hampton explained how organizations infuse equity into their values and focus on expanding diversity, equity, and inclusion beyond gender and race. However, their hiring practices are sometimes misaligned with their values and can fall short. An intersectional lens can maintain the focus on equitable and inclusive outcomes for women.

3. Engage with communities and stakeholders

Local governments should engage with communities and stakeholders to better understand their unique needs and experiences. Kimberly Sowell recommended implementing employee resource groups to create space and allow women to feel like they belong in the organization. This can help to inform policies and programs that are more responsive to the needs of all women in local government.

4. Train staff and officials on intersectionality

Local governments should provide training to staff and officials on intersectionality and how to incorporate it into their policies and practices. Wanda Bernard-Bailey encouraged attendees to go beyond training by remaining eclectic in their openness and how they view people to create commonalities, bonding, and understanding. This can help to ensure that intersectionality is integrated into all aspects of local government.

Organizations can help leaders become familiar with the effects of intersectionality and bias. Leaders can become more focused and inclusive in their day-to-day decision making, then advocate and model effective behaviors and techniques for leveraging intersectionality to advance women in local government.

ICMA provides professional development opportunities through SheLeadsGov, an initiative of ICMA and ICMA affiliates that strives to ensure that members and the overall profession reflects the diversity of the people we serve. Through networking, education, and events, ICMA upholds efforts toward fostering an environment for women to flourish in leadership and management roles. ICMA is committed to moving the needle, now more than ever.

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