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Times Are Changing, But Not For Women in City Management

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

By Jorene Jameson
March 20, 2015

In the 1970s, I was a young local government professional who aspired to become a city manager. Why not?  I had the degree, an MPA from an Ivy League school known for producing city managers, and an entry level position working directly for a county administrator. For 10 years, I gained great experience in city and county government positioning myself for the big move.

What did I face?  A that time, a female city manager was a rare breed. I applied for many positions, assistant manager and manager positions with small cities. Typically, I was interviewed by a panel of men who wanted to know about my “family” and “how would I feel about supervising the police chief.” I didn’t get the jobs I wanted, in spite of an ability to relocate, a factor many point to as a reason why a profession like this isn’t more heavily represented by women.

Jameson marchOK, the times have changed. With more elected women and changes in personnel practices, hiring bodies are more diverse and open to women in the top jobs. But what does the data show?  Recently, I looked at the ICMA data on women in city manager positions and I was disappointed to see that the statistic had gone from 1 percent in the 70’s to 19 percent. After five decades, there are many hurdles still facing women who want to pursue this profession. In contrast, a 2009 study published by the University of Denver, Benchmarking Women’s Leadership noted that 40 percent of nonprofit CEO positions were held by women.

Would I recommend that a young woman pursue this profession today?  It wouldn’t be my top recommendation.

This brings me back to my own story. In the early 80’s I left government, a place where I thought I would spend my entire career. Instead, I took a job as a CEO with a nonprofit. The organization I went to work for actually pursued me to apply for the position. It was the perfect fit for me and I went on to work in the nonprofit sector for the next 25 years in executive positions.

Why do nonprofit organizations offer better CEO opportunities for women than city/county manager positons?  I haven’t done a study to really research that question, but my gut tells me it’s partly cultural and partly logistics.

If we read Camilla Stivers’ insightful books, Gender Images in Public Administration and Bureau Men, Settlement Women, we know that public administration is embedded with male “images” that date back to the turn of the century when men were reforming local government. At the same time, many women were putting their energies into establishing settlement houses and other social causes. The nonprofit sector, particularly in the social services, has a long tradition of women leading those causes and therefore, the cultures are just different.

What about logistics? While Google’s Sheryl Sandberg tells women to “lean in,’ the reality is that they’re opting out. Why?  Because the business sector has still not adapted to the needs of women, particularly when it comes to work-family balance.

The city manager job track has a tradition of aspiring managers that work their way up through a system of local government. It’s a linear system and to get the top jobs, candidates must be willing to relocate regularly to work their way to the top jobs. While some spouses might be willing to play the role of “trailing spouse,’ that’s not always feasible or desirable. Of course, not all women are married. But most people, male or female, want a significant partner in their lives. The juggling of careers is still a major issue. Children complicate this further and a woman must juggle many roles, at home and at work, to maintain a satisfactory work/family balance.

The nonprofit sector offers many more job opportunities within a given geographic area, allowing more opportunities for women. For example, in Broward County, Florida, where I live, there are approximately 20 cities that have city manager type positions. However, there are 800 nonprofit organizations in the human services sector alone. An aspiring public executive could live here her entire life and have a great career in the nonprofit sector and not have to ask her partner or children to give up their career and home to follow her.

The times are a changing, but not very dramatically over my career span. The city manager profession is locally controlled and steeped in a longtime culture that was built by the men of the municipal reform movement. The profession may not be able to make the kinds of changes that can attract and retain women. Thankfully, there are good options for publicly minded women in the nonprofit sector.

Author: Jorene Jameson, MPA is a doctoral student and teaching assistant in the School of Public Administration at Florida Atlantic University. Email: [email protected]

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