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Holding Up the Glass Ceiling in 21st Century Public Service

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

By Horace Blake
March 17, 2015

Blake marchThe number of women currently in the workforce might suggest that the glass ceiling is passé to ponder. However, this is not the case. Many boardrooms, in both the private as well as the public sector, are overwhelming filled with white Anglo Saxon males.

There is no confusion as to why this is so. Many suggest that not enough career track women are in place to make it up the ranks as high level public administrators. The opportunities are limited for women who aspire to make public service a career as tradition keeps the “good old boys” network intact.

Women are very welcomed as low level, front line professionals. However, leading and managing large agencies and departments are sometimes met with staunch resistance and not just from the men who are guarding tradition. There are discouraging women who are supportive with their own gender.

Examining the issue of women in leadership roles is a paradigm that is discussed in three models. One model examines the distinction between aspirations and achievements for men versus those of women. Another model examines the cultural and societal norms that place men on a track toward advancement, while women struggle to be noticed. The other model, which is the organizational perspective or discrimination model, examines the effect of limited opportunities for women that are based on systemic biases.

The notion that women maintain a lack of desire for power examines how power is perceived by both men and women. Women with their nurturing disposition uses their power to help others as they believe power is not finite but is achieved when it is shared with others. According to Donald E. Klinger and John Nalbandian in Public Personnel Management: Contexts and Strategies, a glass ceiling that exists, inhibits success almost imperceptibly at each step of the professional ladder, thus parlaying into substantial cumulative effect.

Gender Disparity in the Public Sector

Women frequently work alongside men while receiving less recognition and pay. Men, at times, are oblivious to the plight of women in terms of the obstacles and barriers that they often confront. Society’s attitude subscribes to the notion that men are assigned appropriate leadership roles while women should contend with theirs. Women are less likely to be mentored or receive encouragement for them to aspire toward upward professional mobility.

The public sector also embraces the formal and informal social network, where men have their golf club buddies or those with whom they attend spectator sports events. The political nature of these social networks automatically excludes women. Traditionally, woman with their degrees, have other outside responsibilities that society is unconcerned about. How they would respond to certain responsibilities, such as child care, would render them unavailable for working long hours or frequent travel. The fact that these leadership roles include hard work and have high stress levels presents a conflict for women who may be torn between their job and their responsibilities with family and home.

Replacing the Retiring Baby Boomers in Public Service

There is an exaggerated quandary as to who will replace the mass exodus of retiring baby boomers. One suggestion is that this might be a way for women to break the glass ceiling and thrust forward in record numbers in the field of public administration. Making available opportunities that would lead to more responsible leadership roles should be a thrust for educational institutions by getting women well trained in skills that would catapult them into these leadership roles.

The critics in the workforce lament that many public administration programs are out of touch with 21st century realities as often they navigate away from areas of concerns toward solving very complex issues. Public administration graduate curriculum has a responsibility and should be targeting very practical, marketable, knowledge base areas that will equip students, especially women, to take their career to unsurpassed levels.

Women tend to bring different priorities and varying voices to leadership roles. Therefore, in terms of managing diversity, the need to depend on affirmative action should be minimal. Organizations have the responsibility to come forward vigorously and take ownership of mentoring women by building ladders that would allow them a smoother climb to success.

Concluding Thoughts and Insights

Preparing women for new opportunities in public administration leadership should be a sustainable endeavor to embrace. More effort should be placed on positive actions where the results would be seen as measurable. Affirmative action initiatives merely open some doors. A few success stories of women in exemplary leadership roles do not mean the battle is won. So it depends on organizational leaders to make a concerted effort and show that they truly want to see more women occupying those highly sought after leadership roles.


Author: Horace A. Blake is a three-term city commissioner with 20 years combined community action experience at municipal and state level. Blake is the current membership chair and treasurer of ASPA’s Section on Public Law and Administration (SPLA). Horace 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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