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MANAGEMENT UPDATE.

THE LEAGUE OF WOMEN IN GOVERNMENT: “PUSHING THE NEEDLE FORWARD”

As of 2023, some 23% of city managers, county managers and chief administrators in the US were women according to the International City and County Management Association (ICMA) database. While there’s plenty of room for more progress, the number demonstrates an improvement over many decades. Back in 1974, a study by ICMA found that 1.3% of people in those top appointed positions of local government were women. A major ICMA Task Force update of that study, released in 2014, put the percentage at 14.4%, with the percentage moving to 19% in 2019. 



The 2014 task force was chaired by Pamela Antil, a well-known member of the ranks of women who currently serve as city managers. Motivated by the findings of the task force, the following year she co-founded the League of Women in Government with Bonnie Svrcek, a now retired city manager from Lynchburg, Virginia. Its mission: Bring more women to the top of local government administration. Antil, who is city manager in Encinitas, California, continues to serve as the volunteer chief administrative officer of the league. In the following Q&A, we talk with her about the path forward for young women and the investments needed to help them reach the top of their profession.


Q. Beyond the data, what were the most significant conclusions of the 2014 study?


A. We started with the premise that we needed to get more women in government at the highest levels given the number of women in local government agencies across the country. In theory, if local government agencies were being run well, why should anyone care if it is a man or woman at the helm? To support more women at the top, we learned that we needed to make a strong business case that an increase of women at the executive level would result in better organizational outcomes. What we ultimately found was from a business perspective, lots of data show that organizations that are more inclusive by gender and ethnicity are more financially stable, more innovative and experience fewer harassment and discrimination claims. Ten years later, I think everybody knows that, but it was important to make that business case back then.


Q. Are you happy with the improvement that you’re seeing?


A. Yes, there is improvement, but it’s good to remember that the number of women can fluctuate and is growing slower than most would like. Around 50% of employees in state and local government and more than 50% of the Master of Public Administration degree students across the nation are women. So, clearly, 23% is low in terms of the number of female top executives, as well as the number of women coming into the profession. It’s time to do another major update of the 2014 Task Force Report – and not just of the top position, but of the numbers of women who are filling the assistant and deputy positions. The assistants and deputies are a group of experienced women where we want to focus our efforts to push them to consider the top chief executive positions. 


Q. How is your League helping to move women to the top of city administrative positions? 


A. We fundraise to support regional and statewide women’s groups that have helped to push the needle forward on the number of women in the most senior executive roles. We provide grants and scholarships to women to attend professional development and networking opportunities. We have provided seed funding to state programming with a focus on women who want to become the chief executive or the assistant chief executive. 


Q. What are the best ways to get assistants or deputies to turn the corner and apply for the chief executive job?


A. I think it’s important as female city managers that we do everything that we can to be available to women who want to pursue the senior executive positions. It’s important to provide assistants and deputies with the experience to build the skills they need. Before I became city manager in Encinitas, I held assistant positions in Santa Barbara, in Palo Alto and in Ann Arbor and I was very lucky, throughout my career to work in organizations where the city manager gave me operational oversight over departments which definitely put me in a better position than other assistants when interviewing for city manager.


To be a successful city manager you also need experience working with elected officials. You must be able to transition from managing people and problems in terms of organization and community to being able to manage differing expectations and making the council/commission’s goals a reality. That’s important training. City managers can assist by allowing their seconds in charge the opportunity for that interaction with elected officials. 


That being said, some people don’t want to apply because of that interaction. City managers are not political, but we need to be cognizant that we work for political beings and how to do this work successfully. It’s not for everyone.


Q. We’ve heard people say that men often have more confidence that they are qualified to apply for a position, whereas women, with the same qualifications, are more likely to assume they’re not qualified enough?


A. I think there are some issues with confidence level. But what I’m really pleased to see is that women who are 20 years younger than I, do have the confidence. I’m a Gen Xer and the younger women I’m seeing are way more confident than people my age when we were in the same part of our careers. The confidence issue is evolving and I’m happy to see this change in the workplace.


Q. Are there other ways that some of the challenges have diminished now?


A. Younger people need to see that women are successful in the top positions, and that this doesn’t stop them from finding success in the remainder of their lives. Earlier in my career, most of the female city managers that I saw didn’t have children. I’m a city manager and I’m a mother. I have two children. Young people, including the men, want to see examples of senior level executives that have kids. They want to see that it’s okay to be a city manager and go to your kids’ soccer game. 


I think that young people today see that we’re a different kind of organization and the pandemic has really changed things, as well. We’ve figured out a way for people to telecommute, and we figured out a way for people to have more flexible schedules. 


Q. Are there other signs of change that you’re seeing?


A. We were successful this year, to get ICMA Board approval for a standing committee, staffed by an ICMA staff person, about women in the profession. There are standing committees on government affairs, performance management, international local government, and digital strategies, but there never was one related to women and now there’s going to be. But it took a group of people on the board – and having women on the board – to get that done.


Just because each generation has it a little better as they come up, there’s still more work to be done. There are always more things we can do to be more inclusive.


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