How to Get More Women into Local Government Management Positions

Women make up a mere 20 percent of Chief Administrative Officers (CAOs) at local governments. Will this ever change — and if so, how? A recent webinar from the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) highlighted the importance of first looking at where women currently are, and then looking to cases in which local governments have succeeded at promoting the inclusion of women in leadership positions.

ICMA tracks the share of female CAOs to assess the progress of females assuming leadership positions in municipal government or lack thereof. In the early to mid-1970s, women made up over 50 percent of all municipal government employees, but according to an ICMA assessment conducted in 1973, less than one percent of 2500 municipalities were managed by women. By the end of 2018, ICMA estimates that women made up about 20 percent of CAOs nationwide, a number that has been the norm for about 10 years.

This information was shared by Laura Goddeeris, Director of Survey Research at ICMA at the ICMA webinar “Interest, Confidence, Risk, Reward: Getting more women into local government management positions.” Moving to a case study of what local governments might consider doing to promote equity and inclusion of women in management positions, Summer Minnick, Deputy Director at the Michigan Municipal League (MML), talked about the 16/50 story – named so because women represent just 16 percent of Michigan’s local CAOs, while making up over 50 percent of the state’s general population.

“Our opinion was that this is really inexcusable, and we need to do something about it,” Minnick said. “We basically have one goal that all of these programs are going after and that is increasing the number of women in these top roles in the state of Michigan.”

MML developed the program with feedback from a workgroup made up of current officials and elected officials to determine what would actually move the needle: what topics, experiences, and connections were needed in the lives of women who sought this top spot.

There were three focus areas based on observed difficulties:

  1. Elected officials. Women who were qualified to enter the field encountered barriers in the selection process, like not knowing the people or the nature of work of the people they would be interviewed by.
  2. Professional development. Women needed better tools and opportunities to help them prepare and advance to municipal executive roles.
  3. Proactive outreach and recruitment. More of the next generation of female leaders have considered municipal service since having conversations with fellow female leaders and becoming inspired.

Minnick pointed to how the MML’s robust gender and equity training was woven into a recent advanced weekender course for elected officials as one example of how work in the focus areas has paid off. MML has also set up an ambassador program to allow women the continued opportunity to connect with managers.

“We found when we first kicked off the ambassador program, a lot of the women who filled out the form to be connected to a current manager were not even in local government,” Minnick said. “They were professionals in other settings who were interested in making a job switch.”

Additionally, MML created a part on their website called “Meet the 16%” that allowed women to view the profiles of city leaders who were in the top spot that they may be aspiring to. Almost all of the women managers took a nontraditional path compared to their male counterparts. Some worked in the private sector; some were community activists.

The most robust initiative that MML provides, according to Minnick, has been the Women’s Municipal Leadership Program (WMLP), a four-month training program that provides an opportunity for aspiring women to develop their skills and leadership abilities along the way to becoming local managers. The program began last August and concluded at the end of November.

Frances McMullan, City Manager at the City of Ypsilanti, applied to WMLP because she knew she had the potential to work in a management role, but needed a push that the program provided.

“This program acknowledged that there was a disadvantage and brought the issue to the forefront,” McMullan said.

McMullan graduated as part of the first class, and she’s excited for the second class that is to come this August. She became a city manager right as she was graduating from the program.

“I had been an interim [city manager] twice, and my confidence level wasn’t where it should be,” McMullan said. “After this class, I was afforded another opportunity and I was chosen for that top position.”

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