Why Confidence Is Not Enough: Reframing the Women's Leadership Gap in Government

It is not surprising that there exists a confidence crisis among women. Systemic issues persist.

By Heather Getha-Taylor | Sep 23, 2019 | BLOG POST
few women city manager graphic

by Heather Getha-Taylor, Ph.D., associate professor, School of Public Affairs and Administration, University of Kansas

In 2017, Heidi Voorhees and Joellen Earl wrote a thought-provoking blog post for ICMA on the “confidence gap.” The authors identify a lack of confidence as a key factor for explaining why women are not well represented in top leadership roles in local government. Drawing upon a variety of sources to illustrate their point, Voorhees and Earl encourage women to take on challenging assignments and act with confidence in those roles. While this represents sage advice, it is not surprising that there exists a confidence crisis among women. Consider the following:  

  • There is a lack of women role models in top local government leadership positions. While it is reported that women make up over 50% of the population and also hold the majority of professional jobs in the United States, they remain underrepresented in leadership roles. A 2014 report by ICMA found that women are well represented in all but the top positions. For example, according to ICMA's 2018 Data on Women Members in the Profession, only 16.9% of chief administrative officers are women. And according to a 2014 report by the ICMA Task Force on Women in the Profession, 4 in 10 survey respondents said that their organization never had a female chief administrative officer.
  • Gendered expectations of leaders start early and are long lasting. According to Harvard University’s Making Caring Common Project, teens are less likely to support girl leaders due in part to the perception that girls are more dramatic and have less confidence than boys. In the context of leadership, there is a widespread view that “women take care while men take charge.” These expectations persist in the workplace as evidenced by a 2017 Ernst and Young survey. The results reveal that men attribute the absence of women leaders to a lack of flexible working arrangements; women respondents identify the lack of senior leadership support as a top barrier.
  • There are systemic biases that stand in the way of achieving leadership equality. In their 2016 publication in The Leadership Quarterly, Crystal Hoyt and Susan Murphy found that women do not fit the stereotypical image of leaders and, therefore, are not selected for those positions. Similarly, in Kim Elsesser and Janet Lever’s 2011 publication in Human Relations, they note that negative perceptions about women leaders are deeply ingrained and that the preference for male bosses endures in the United States. ICMA found evidence of a self-perpetuating cycle in a 2014 study: when officials choose not to hire female job candidates, it is not because of concerns about the candidate’s competency but rather it is because the hiring officials have not encountered concerns specific to female candidates.

While each of these illustrations is significant on its own, the cumulative impact of these forces is detrimental to the full participation of women in leadership. Given this context, why would we expect women to act with confidence when pursuing leadership roles? Yes, we need to continue to invest in training and development programs to help women develop necessary leadership skills and build confidence, but we also need to address the broader systemic issues that stand in the way of progress.

The persistent gender imbalance in public service leadership is a problem that cannot be solved just by telling women in government to be more confident. Rather, policy makers, organizational leaders, and citizens should together support gender equality and the cultivation of a local government workforce that looks like the society it serves. Having women in positions of power is an indicator of equal opportunity and good governance, but we need more than confidence to make that happen.

About the Author:

As a researcher and teacher, Heather Getha-Taylor’s work focuses on human resource management, public service leadership, and collaboration. She serves as editor of Public Personnel Management and has published work in a variety of scholarly and practitioner outlets. When enrolled as a graduate student at the University of Georgia, she began her first research project, which explored the uneven participation of women in the senior executive service. Nearly 20 years later, the women’s leadership gap in government remains salient. Heather’s next research project will examine this theme in new ways. To learn more or to get involved, email her at hgtaylor@ku.edu.


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