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.