Minnesota Cities Magazine
More from May-Jun 2017 issue

Women In Public Service: Can We Close the Gap?

By Kris Norman-Major and Nicole Kutsi
Illustration of the gap between men and women serving as leaders in the public sector. A woman stands at a ladder with several rungs missing, while a man stands at a ladder with all of its rungs intact.

A report from the Minnesota Council on the Economic Status of Women asks the questions: “Is the status of women employed by cities and counties significantly different? Do women in local government have equal access to employment and equal opportunities for advancement in all jobs? Has the earnings gap between men and women been eliminated in Minnesota’s local government employment?”

These are all sound questions. The challenge is that the report was produced in 1980—yet we are asking the same questions today.

According to the International City/ County Management Association (ICMA), women lag far behind men in the number of leadership positions they hold in local government. The numbers have not really moved since the Reagan administration. While over half of all public employees are female and over half of people receiving their master’s degree in public administration are female, estimates show women hold only 15 to 20 percent of city and county manager or administrator positions.

Other than the obvious fact that these numbers reflect a lack of equity and diversity in the field, does it matter that leadership positions in local government are still dominated by men? Today’s local government isn’t the same as our grandfather’s (grandmother’s) local government. The increasing diversity of our communities, complexity of the problems to be addressed, and growing need to work across sectors to find solutions require different leadership skills than in the past.

Diverse approaches needed
Research shows that, historically, traditional leadership styles are more managerial and based upon siloed environments, reward/punishment systems, and measures and metrics that can stagnate an organization or limit the performance capabilities of employees. However, the environment of local government today requires more diverse leadership approaches.

Today’s employees are more likely to thrive with managers and supervisors who practice transformational leadership. This style introduces more relationship-oriented approaches that create the ability for subordinates to be more creative, innovative, and team-driven, increasing effectiveness and efficiency.

This relationship-oriented leadership style often creates an organizational culture that leads to the fulfilling of organizational missions, goals, and values; enhances communication; and promotes collaboration both within and outside the organization. Research shows that women embrace and excel at practicing this type of leadership style, which is beneficial to any organization.

Developing leadership skills
So, how do we increase the number of women in local government leadership positions to make it match their presence in the rest of the sector and the communities they serve?

A good start in accomplishing this is to provide opportunities that introduce leadership skills, mentorship opportunities, and fellowship opportunities to hone and grow women as leaders. This creates the ability for women to establish themselves as leaders as well as establish a presence within their organization allowing for promotion from within.

Aligned with this is the need for women who are currently working in local government to step outside their comfort zone and develop their current skills into leadership positions. Research reflects that women tend to remain in their current positions because they may be uninterested in advancing and/or may not believe they have the skill set that would fully qualify them for higher-level positions.

As for the organization, it must work to create an atmosphere that is more equitable, acknowledges diverse styles of leadership, and branches out beyond the usual suspects as job candidates.

Mentorship is also vital to develop women for leadership roles. Organizations can accomplish this through individualized mentorship programs or organizational leadership programs that help women grow and hone their leadership skills.

Creating an inclusive culture
Finally, inclusivity is key in creating a strong organizational culture for workers as well as leaders. Inclusivity allows for transparent decision-making processes, creativity, and productive work environments.

This also opens the door to more diverse representations within an organization that promote trust and respect, as well as the ability to enhance problem solving and productivity. An inclusive environment will also result in higher retention rates.

None of the above alone will move the needle in increasing the number of women in local government leadership positions, but combined, they can create a workforce that reflects the gender equity of 2017 versus being stuck in the 1980s.

Kris Norman-Major is co-director of the Center for Public Administration and Leadership at the Hamline University School of Business (www.hamline.edu/business). Nicole Kutsi is a contract officer with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and recently completed her doctorate of public administration at Hamline. Hamline’s School of Business is a member of the League’s Business Leadership Council (www.lmc.org/sponsors).

Read the May-June issue of Minnesota Cities magazine

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