May 10 2022

Large Gender Gap Exists in Local Government Leadership

Women are more likely to helm small government entities, mirroring private sector trends.

More women serve in local government leadership roles for top appointed officials than a decade ago across the United States, but the percentage of women in those positions still lags significant behind men, according to fresh research that estimates women won’t catch up for another 25 years at the current pace of advancement.

The conclusions appear in a recent report by the nonprofit research group CivicPulse and its partner Engaging Local Government Leaders, a professional networking organization with the goal of growing the number of women and people of color in city leadership roles.

The research, believed to be the first of its kind, focuses on city or county leaders overseeing their government’s day-to-day operations in U.S. cities, counties or other local government entities with populations over 1,000. Women made up 29 percent of people serving in these positions, often called city administrators or managers appointed by elected officials. That number has grown just 7 percent in the last decade.

READ MORE: How centralized security solutions and leadership benefit state and local governments.

“There’s a huge amount of attention now on diversity in government leadership, or lack thereof, and it’s well established that there’s a big gender gap in federal and state government,” says CivicPulse Founder and Managing Director Nathan Lee. “But because of data limitations, it’s been harder to systematically look at local government leadership.”

In partnership with Power Almanac, the group cross-checked a database of top city officials with the Social Security baby name registry, classifying someone as male or female if their name matched a gender with 97 percent certainty. Lee says about 92 percent of names were able to be coded, not accounting for officials with gender-neutral names or those who identify as nonbinary.

Still, Lee says, “We feel confident in our numbers and in the findings. Given how little data was out there, we think we really moved the needle and are shining a light in a space that has too little light.”

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Anecdotes Suggest Women in Government Still Face Discrimination

While the report doesn’t address the reasons for the gender gap, Engaging Local Government Leaders Co-Founder and Executive Director Kristen Wyatt knows from her own experiences that women in the field still face gender discrimination.

While serving as an assistant city manager in Oregon, Wyatt says, she was told by a city councilor that she would not get promoted to city manager because she was a mother.

“It was a firsthand example of someone saying, ‘OK, we have a vision for who gets to be in this top spot, and you don’t fit that vision,’” she tells StateTech. “I pushed back and ultimately left the organization, but that’s still the type of mindset that folks are encountering that want to take that top position.” 

So far, Alabama is the only state that has reached gender parity, with women leading 57 percent of the 109 local governments studied, according to the report. Idaho, West Virginia, New Hampshire and Maine are the next closest states. 

RELATED: How local governments can elevate DEI principles in procurement.

Public Sector Survey Appears to Mirror Private Sector Trends

The CivicPulse data also shows smaller local government entities with 1,000 to 5,000 people are more likely to have women at the helm. In these communities, 38 percent of top appointed officials are women, compared with 24 percent in communities of 5,000 or more.

This seems to mirror private sector trends that smaller companies are more likely to have women CEOs than large ones, Lee says. 

“The higher you get on the prestige ladder, if you will, oftentimes the worse the gender gap gets,” he says, adding that it’s a topic that warrants more research. “We were taken aback, but we weren’t shocked.”

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Lee says his organization would eventually like to make a deeper dive into the data, including case studies and similar research, to gauge the gender gap among top elected officials. Already in the works is a look at the gender gap among finance officials in local governments, which often feed into the top administrative positions. 

Wyatt says she hopes the current research will serve as a “kick in the pants” for local governments and professional associations with diversity and inclusion initiatives, reminding them that it is a worthy investment to continue pursuing.

“I think where it gets really exciting is to be able to use data to bridge how we actually put programs in place that make a difference,” Wyatt says. “It’s wonderful working with CivicPulse because then we can help take that data and bring it to life.”

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