Promoting Women in Executive Roles – And Why Men Should Care


The International City/County Management Association (ICMA) has released a survey with some hard-to-believe results. Today, only 13% of chief executive positions in local government are held by women – a number that has remained exactly the same since 1981. A lot of other things have changed since the same year IBM introduced the first personal computer, Jordache jeans were cool, and a first-class stamp cost 15 cents; but the number of women executives – no change there. Not one bit, for 34 years.

Despite the fact that more women now earn more graduate degrees in public administration then men (by a wide margin), and that women have been actively participating in the American workforce in huge numbers for nearly 50 years, we are still not getting those public CEO roles. In a recent ICMA article asking why there’s been so little progress, there were a few theories that make some sense. But with the goal of looking ahead rather than crying in our soup about the past, let’s focus on what we can individually do to help women prepare and then try for those top jobs. Let’s commit to:

  • Push more – The ICMA study noted that women tend to think they have to work longer, and prepare further, before they can pursue CAO/CEO opportunities; men just go for them, whether or not they have 100% of the experience that may be needed. I want to be the voice of encouragement to push my female colleagues to apply for those jobs that may to them seem out of reach, when really they are as prepared as the next person.  I’ve had two bosses (both men, by the way) that have done this for me, and I want to do the same for others.
  • Help more – The issue of handling family life while pursuing a ladder-climbing career is a real struggle for many women. Those of us who have been there can now help share some strategies with colleagues in the thick of young kiddos and long hours. We can also help promote policies that make that juggling easier, like the new work-life balance jobs we’ve created this year in my city. These positions provided pro-rated benefits to employees that work a reduced schedule, which has let at least one colleague keep her position while also spending more time at home. We should all be promoting policies and work practices that help employees find that sweet spot with work and family life.
  • Encourage more – Women need to keep building their networks and supporting one another in professional development. Organizations like Women Leading Government (WLG) are made to connect and support women in public service. We need to grow these organizations all around the country, and in all levels of government. These organizations can also help influence and inform elected officials, who are ultimately making those CEO hires in most cases. Get involved in WLG or similar professional organization, and put this on their radar screen as a priority.

Is this exclusively a women’s issue? Not really. If we really care about the quality of public sector management, then we all should want the best and brightest to be in the big chairs in city halls and agency headquarters all around the country.

Lori Sassoon is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Michael Scott

Very nice article! The world is always best served by hiring and empowering the most qualified leaders which inspire creativity and collaboration used to provide impeccable service to our constituents. One good leader can make all the difference.

I agree that we need to support and advocate for enhanced policies which help all staff balance life between work and home. Through advancements in technology, professionals are more ‘connected’ to work and information than ever before. In many ways this is a huge advantage to the individual and the organization. The only concern is the blurring of time quietly and unintentionally borrowed from our families. I don’t have the answers to this, however as a team of professionals we need to assist and support each other to promote a healthy life balance.