Time for Women to Step up to the Plate – to Fill Leadership Gaps in Local Government

Image MPA Degrees By Gender 1984-2006

In the September/October 2015 edition of Kentucky City, on the topic of Succession Planning, I discussed the looming retirement crisis in local government, a crisis that is becoming more apparent by the day. According to the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), roughly half of the government workers in this country are 45 or older, and the largest replacement gap is in senior executive and managerial occupations.  The growing number of retirements is a forerunner of what some experts call a broader government talent shortage to come.[i]

Professionally trained administrators are critical to the operation and management of governmental agencies. The field of public administration has long promoted the professional training of administrators to improve the operation of government agencies, “with the utmost possible efficiency and at the least possible cost either of money or energy.”[ii] This is particularly true with respect to local government, where city managers are situated at the top of the organizational hierarchy[iii]. Unfortunately, these senior management positions remain largely the domain of males. Females represent just 13% of city management positions, the same percentage as in 1981 (ICMA, 2014).[iv] The fact that women are not better represented in the upper ranks of local government management is disconcerting given that based on what we do know, female city managers bring to the table different priorities, voice different policy preferences, and are perceived to be more responsive to their constituents than are male city managers.[v]

Scholars have offered a number of explanations for why women have failed to break through the glass ceiling in professional city management including self-selection, gender stereotypes, agency structure, or lack of professional training.[vi] ICMA, in 2014 similarly tried to make sense of the gender imbalance by identifying four challenges to career advancement:

  • Women believe they have to have all of the necessary experience before they apply for the next position;
  • Women face certain challenges while trying to achieve a work/family harmony;
  • Women who are assertive can be perceived differently than men who are assertive (i.e., the assertiveness dilemma); and
  • A woman’s career progression may be hampered by the attitudes of hiring authorities and supervisors.[vii]

Education has traditionally been lauded as a freedom-granting exercise for women around the world. Women have made indisputable gains in the workforce, largely as a result of increased opportunities in higher education.[viii] In a 2012 study on gender disparity in professional city management, coauthor Trenton Davis and I ruled out the lack of educational qualifications as a viable explanation for why more women do not become city managers.

Using a comparative analysis to examine male versus female MPA degree completion rates from NASPAA-accredited institutions, we found that yearly percentage of male and female MPA degree completions underwent a dramatic shift from 1984-2006. Female MPA students are currently completing MPA degrees at higher rates than males (see, Figure 1). More than half of all MPA degrees have been received by females every year since the mid-1990s, reaching 58.5% in 2006. Importantly, our analysis revealed a 20-year trend of at least an adequate supply of academically-prepared females.[ix] And yet, this steady increase in the supply of females with graduate degrees in public administration has not translated into a noticeably larger percentage of female city managers.

Explanations for why more women do not become city managers have thus far been largely anecdotal. The disparity between male and female city managers, for reasons still unclear, comes to the fore at a time when many have expressed concern about a looming leadership gap. Certainly, more research needs to take place to determine why there are so few female city managers.

The first step, as the ICMA article Women Leading Government suggests, may be to examine what responsibilities women have for their own success, and what managers can do to improve women’s chances for achieving senior positions. Future lines of inquiry should examine factors such as the influence of internships and mentoring programs, gender schemas in hiring decisions, and individual circumstances that, taken together with the looming retirement storm, may cause women to confront any lingering barriers to the glass ceiling and step up to “inspire, lead and manage people.”[x]        


[ii] Wilson, W. (1887). The study of administration. Political Science Quarterly, 2, 197–222, p. 1975

[iii] In general, a city manager is the chief executive officer of a municipality whose primary purpose is to manage the day-to-day business of the city (see, e.g., Montjoy and Watson, 1995; Golembiewski and Gabris, 1995; Fox and Schuhmann, 1999).

[iv] ICMA (2014) “Women Leading Government, @ https://icma.org/articles/pm-magazine/women-leading-government

[v]  Fox & Schuhmann, 2001; Guy & Newman 2004; Stillman, 1974

[vi] Beaty, L. & Davis, T.J. (2012). Gender disparity in professional city management: making the case for enhancing leadership curriculum. The Journal of Public Affairs Education, 18(4), 617-632.  

Beaty & Davis, 2014 Gender Disparity in Professional City Management: Making the Case for Enhancing Leadership Curriculum

[vii] ICMA, 2014 (Ibid.)

[viii] Beaty & Davis (Ibid., 629).

[ix] Beaty & Davis (Ibid.)

[x] Hines, D.A. (2010) Re-emphasizing employee development in public administration. PA Times p. 3.

Published on April 20, 2018