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Women in Leadership: We Count What We Value

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

By April Townsend
August 17, 2020

Discussions about leadership and women typically concentrate on the small number of women CEOs or the absence of female board members. When the focus turns to government, the popular topic is the need for more women to run for an elected office. While all of these areas are important, there is frustratingly little attention given to the lack of women leaders within the halls of government.

The research that is available on women leaders in government explores their status within the federal government, leaving a notable absence of data at state and local levels. This matters because those who work for state and local governments are responsible for implementing public policies that often have the most immediate effect on our communities.

To address this lack of data, a groundbreaking study was conducted by the Utah Women & Leadership Project to determine how women are represented in formal leadership positions within the Utah State government. The goal was to create a baseline number of women who work in leadership roles within the state government, while also capturing the titles and agencies where women work. Similar data was identified for Utah’s county and city levels, the results of which will be released in the coming months. (To learn more of the research, click here.)

The research itself both confirmed predictions and provided useful insights. One unexpected finding was the high percentage of women leaders in organizations with the largest state budgets; however, this surprising discovery was mitigated once the agencies were identified as relating to education, health and human services—all identified as redistributive or “feminine” agencies. This finding echoes previous federal-level research that the type of agency in which a woman works plays a significant role in whether she can anticipate being successful in advancing to leadership.

Representation Matters

The idea of representation is at the core of American democracy. While it is most commonly associated with those elected into public office, what’s often overlooked is the idea of representation within our government agencies. We are all shaped by our social experiences. Our different demographic characteristics provide unique social experiences which can influence how we perceive the world around us.

The social experiences of the government’s workforce matter. Public administration scholars have found that communities are much more accepting of government work if those doing the work share similar demographics. Diversity in government leadership conveys to the community that a range of group interests, experiences and priorities are represented during discussions that relate to the implementation of laws, programs and services. It also implies that the communities’ needs are being reflected in the overall distribution of government resources.

Diversity Within Leadership

As population projections for the United States predict more diversity among Americans than in the past, hiring decisions that support a diverse workforce will play an important role in the perceived legitimacy of government. Unfortunately, diversity in our public agencies is more frequently found at the “street level” or front-line where services are delivered, rather than in the leadership ranks where public policy decisions are debated and decided. In fact, leadership positions within public administration are dominated by white men, who hold 70% of executive leadership jobs.

The result is that there are disproportionately few women who have a seat in executive-level discussions. Even more discouraging is the lack of women of color, who nationally comprise only 6% of state government leadership positions. This is mirrored in federal employment data that shows both women and minorities are significantly underrepresented in high-level professional positions, remaining heavily concentrated in lower-level positions, which are commonly clerical and blue-collar jobs.

We Count What We Value

While the research mentioned previously contains elements that are both surprising and somewhat predictable, the larger issue is the need for similar research to be conducted and shared within every state. We count what we value; and according to our research, the gathering and reporting of data on women leaders who work within state, county and municipal levels of governments has not been a priority.

The current research is done in the hopes that other state and local governments will reflect on whose faces, whose experiences and whose values are considered when creating public policies that impact our communities. Without a baseline of data that captures current levels of women leaders across the country, we will not be able to track progress.

It is particularly crucial that we identify and track our leaders who are women of color and learn from their experiences so we can better support future leadership advancement. Their voices, their perspectives and their experiences are valuable to our communities. Progress will only happen once we acknowledge where we are and take intentional action to improve the diversity of our leadership ranks.


Author: Dr. April Townsend worked in local government for over 30 years, holding top leadership and management positions. As a practitioner and a scholar, her focus is on leadership development, organizational effectiveness, and financial accountability. She is the owner of Townsend Consulting and can be reached at [email protected]. Twitter handle: @AprilT2014

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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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