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Capable Women, Capable Leaders, Complex Challenges

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Anya Tolbert
March 3, 2015

“I learned to always take on things I’d never done before. Growth and comfort do not coexist.” -IBM CEO Virginia Rometty

In the State of Alabama, the governmental structure consists of governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, state auditor, secretary of state, state treasurer, commissioner of agriculture and industries and governor’s cabinet (22 commissioners appointed by the governor to oversee the 22 state agencies). The table below references data from the Alabama Department of Archives and History about the number of women, past and present, which have filled these positions:


# of women who served in office

total # of men and women who served in office




lieutenant governor



attorney general



state auditor



secretary of state



state treasurer



commissioner of agriculture and industries



In the governor’s cabinet, there are 4 women of 22 members serving as commissioners over the state agencies. Narrowing even further, the Alabama Department of Labor (formerly Department of Industrial Relations) has had 4 women of 24 commissioners serve in the agency. These numbers provide insight about the disparity of men and women who fill leadership roles in state government, but they also indicate a commonality throughout U.S. government.

Many thought provoking studies provide perspectives about why this disproportion occurs and the findings are unexpected. While gender discrimination is a pertinent issue, it is important to expand the view about gender bias not being the single or dominant obstacle. Governor Peter Shumlin, as referenced in his article “We Need More Women in Governorships,” discussed survey data about a number of women who feel unqualified to seek out public leadership positions, even those who have attained the credentials. Next, Steve Peoples cited in his article “Democrats Work to Raise Number of Female Governors” that “Women are not a ‘coalition.’ They represent more than half the voting population in the country…” alluding to the loss of women for women votes. Lastly, Peoples sheds light on a misconception about political party affiliation. “The Democratic Party claims to be the natural home for women. The numbers tell another story when it comes to the nation’s governors,” said Peoples. According to the Center for American Women and Politics, there are currently five women governors in the United States, three of which are Republican.

Tolbert marchCertainly, the reasons vary why more women do not pursue executive positions, why there is not a stronger voting alliance among women, and why the nation’s women governors do not primarily represent the Democratic Party. Howbeit, can there be a balance by more women applying for top positions? Reviewing the 2014 election information for state offices in Alabama, the numbers says yes. The state offices of governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, state auditor, secretary of state, state treasurer and commissioner of agriculture and industries were up for election. On the ballot, there were a combined total of 20 candidates for these offices: 3 women, 16 men and 1 withdrawal. One woman was elected. This is not to imply that encouraging more women to apply for top leadership positions is a quick fix for this complex issue, but it is a means for making a difference.

Alice Eagly and Linda Carli disprove the notion of a glass ceiling in their article “Women and the Labyrinth of Leadership.” According to Eagly and Carli, the glass ceiling metaphor refers to an absolute barrier to high level positions and that women have equal access as men to job openings. The authors proves the metaphor untrue by the fact that there have been a number of women to fill high level positions and women experience bias and other complex challenges to employment entry. Eagly and Carli offer an alternate metaphor, the labyrinth, to describe the difficult journey women encounter in attempting to reach their career goals. “The metaphor acknowledges obstacles but is not ultimately discouraging,” said Eagly and Carli. The resounding message, do not lose hope in arriving at the desired destination.

Leaders have the responsibility of recovering from setbacks while continuing to influence others to stay the course. Considering this challenge, it takes courage to apply for a position with the inability to predict the outcome. It takes even more courage to try again. However, women are progressively encouraged to fill top leadership positions; therefore, the odds look favorable.

Author: Anya Tolbert is the Alabama JobLink supervisor for the Alabama Department of Labor, Employment Service Division in Montgomery. She can be reached at [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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