Getting women in the city manager’s pipeline

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, July 14, 2019

The naming of two white males as finalists for Columbia’s city manager, and five in Springfield, in this day-and-age of diversity caught my attention. Moreover, no women were among the 33 potential applicants identified by the management hiring firm contracted to assist in Columbia’s top executive position. It turns out that Columbia is not alone.

Women in the top executive position, termed “chief administrative officer” (CAO), in local government lags that of most other governance settings in the U.S.
Analytical caution is necessary, however, because both “local governments” and “chief administrative officers” differ substantially across the country. For example, in some states, libraries and K-12 education are considered local government; other times they are not. Similarly, city managers of major cities are much different than “city administrators” of small cities.

Nationwide, in 2017, about 17% of local chief administrative officers (CAOs) were women. This number has been very stubborn to increase much, and it lags the top administrative leaders in the federal government, estimated to be 39 percent.
In 2017, 22 of the largest 100 cities had women mayors; about 20% of mayors of cities with populations over 100,000 are women; about 25% of Congress and state legislatures are women; and 24% of statewide elected offices are women. Forty percent of school board members and 21% of corporate boards of Fortune 1000 companies are women. More than two-thirds of public library directors are women.

Boone County voters have elected women to half of Boone County elected administrative offices and to one of three county commission seats. In the recent past, Wendy Noren and Karen Miller were elected as county clerk and to the county commission for more than a quarter of a century. The Columbia City Council presently has one woman among its six members and the mayor.

The reasons for gender differences in all governance positions, and in the economy at large, is a topic of much debate but likely includes discrimination, implicit biases, gender differences in risk-taking, gender differences in family responsibilities and differences in personal work-life balance decisions.

Women aspiring to be city managers face those obstacles plus more. City managers responsibilities and duties are different from those of elected representatives.
City managers are not mainly representative positions, though they do represent the city, like City Council members or legislators. City managers are complex administrative positions requiring budgeting and public policy expertise, skills to manage executive departments and keep their direct bosses, the city council and their indirect bosses, the public, happy. City managers are intended to bring professional managerial skills to a political environment fraught with chaos and confusion.

It is much easier to be an elected legislator at the local, state and national level, a member of a large decision body, than to be the focal solo decision maker. Often, city managers need to spend time and energy restraining elected city council members who want to “micro-manage.” I have no doubt that the “right woman” can do as well as the “right man,” but city manager skills are hard to find among either gender.

Women comprise 26% of Columbia city government’s workforce because of the dominance of the “traditionally” male fields of police, fire, public utilities and solid waste management. Women compose about 43% of the federal executive workforce and about 45% of all state and local governments. This means that the are proportionally fewer women competing in the hiring pipeline for local city managers.

While it is common for “outsiders” to be elected to city councils, mayors and school boards, administrative leaders such as library directors and city managers generally “work their way up” city organizations. This makes diversity at the entry level critical. City managers increasingly tend to geographically re-locate to work their way up the ladder. Mobility requirements tends to work against women because of differing family responsibilities.
Selecting more women as city managers requires increasing the number of women applicants: getting more women into the city manager pipeline. This is hard work.

Here are several suggestions:

Adopting and achieving adequate affirmative action and hiring plans. Columbia did not achieve any of its gender and race affirmative action goals in 2017.
Electing more women to all governance positions to insure that hiring and promoting women stays a goal.

Recruit more women in entry-level positions. Given the functions of local governments, this means more women with advanced education in engineering, information technology and finance not only in human resources and public affairs.

Insure equal representation on advisory boards and commissions.

Increase the public’s understanding of local government. My academic field, political science, tends to focus on Congress and elections to the detriment of citizen understanding local government. In the 1950s and 1960s local government was an established sub-field but such expertise has retired. Journalism has abandon state and local government, as well.

After Columbia has hired a new city manager, whomever he is, the next order of business will be evaluating and deciding about the head of city agencies. Citizens and the city council should demand that the selection process has more diverse candidates to choose from.
David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994.

Frederick Douglass viewed July 4 through the lens of slavery

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, July 4, 2019

Frederick Douglass’s 1852 speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” is well worth reading to mark our Independence Day.

Douglass artfully praised the foundation principles of the Declaration of Independence — “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” — and skillfully demonstrated how our country fell short during its first 76 years.
He hoped our country’s youthfulness would allow time for us to re-orient the path we were on. Douglas asserted that “the existence of slavery in this county brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretense, and your Christianity as a lie.”

It is a hard-hitting speech that many of today’s citizens would prefer to ignore — but that would be passing up an opportunity to feel the conflicting forces of American history. Significantly, Douglass addressed his words to “my fellow citizens” but consistently referred to the United States as “your country” and the Fourth as “your Independence Day.”

He saw our founders as ambitious and creative in establishing a union devoted to liberty, self-governance and independence from England, but men who failed to settle questions of inclusions and citizenship that still haunt us today.
Born and mistreated as a slave, Douglass became a sought-after orator and abolition leader after he escaped and gained his freedom. He was asked to speak to the Ladies Antislavery Society of Rochester, New York, to mark another Independence Day.

That was in 1852, during the decade of the Missouri Compromise, the Fugitive Slave Act and the Dred Scott decision and before the Civil War.

In a frequently quoted excerpt, Douglass answers the question, “What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?” with this assessment:
“A day that reveals to him, more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is a constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes that would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation of the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloodier than are the people of these United States at this very hour.”

Those are scorching words, and they are hard to hear.

Douglass expresses admiration for our founders, proclaiming them “brave men.”

He goes on: “They were great men also — great enough to give frame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not certainly, the most favorable, and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesman, patriots and heroes, and the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.”

He proceeds with a veiled criticism, relying on the last words of the Declaration of Independence: “Your fathers staked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor on the cause of their county. In their admiration of liberty, they lost sight of all other interests.”

Douglass concludes with hope, saying, “I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. The arm of the Lord is not shortened, and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I begin, with hope. While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions.”

It must have been Douglass’s ability to experience tragedy yet retain hope that allowed him to endure and create a long, distinguished life as an author and orator.

As he wrote in his autobiography “I have to say that, although it has at times been dark and stormy, and I have met hardships from which other men have been exempted, yet my life has in many respects been remarkably full of sunshine and joy.”

David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994.