We’ve all heard the quip that a woman’s place is in the house — and the Senate. But what about the city council or the city management team?
Only 29.1% of Utah’s municipal leadership positions are held by women — significantly lower than the county (42.5%) and state levels (39.3%), according to the Utah Women and Leadership Project. The bad news is this deficit hurts our cities. The good news? Small remedies can make a big difference. The time has come to break down barriers to women’s involvement in local government.
There are 30 years of research documenting the benefits of more women in local government: Women engage more with their constituents and create more inclusive budgets and policies. Women are more likely to acknowledge and solve fiscal problems. Their leadership style is more collaborative, democratic and participative. In cities with female mayors, more people participate in public meetings, representing a more diverse mix of community members. Women in public office prioritize policies that support women, children and public health. In short, when women lead our cities and towns, citizens benefit — especially those who have been historically underserved.
Two simple changes could attract more women into municipal leadership: offer more part-time positions, and implement family-friendly policies.
How can part-time positions empower women in government?
Across all sectors, women are more than twice as likely as men to voluntarily seek part-time work. Given the choice between full-time and zero-time work, many women will opt for the latter. Thus, when our city governments force women to make this choice, we miss out on a significant source of talent and capability. Research in Sweden suggests that part-time work for women “increased the continuity of their labor force attachment, strengthened their position in the labor market, and reduced their economic dependency.”
Closer to home, a majority of the surveyed women in BYU’s Master of Public Administration (MPA) program want to work part time for at least a portion of their careers. Of the 16 who don’t currently have children, 13 would prefer reduced-hours roles if they have young children in the future. All six of those who are currently mothers say their ideal first job would be part-time, with most favoring fewer than 20 hours per week.
If cities and towns offered more part-time positions, more public-service-oriented women could gain professional experience in local government, providing a pipeline into government leadership. Some of these women might follow in the footsteps of Michelle Kaufusi, the current mayor of Provo City, who prioritized family early in her career then pivoted into political involvement.
What benefits can we give women in the workforce?
Some might argue that only private companies can afford benefits such as flexible scheduling, reasonable parental leave, remote work options and childcare benefits. But public entities like city governments can’t afford to fail in this area. The discrepancy in benefits is a leading reason the public sector loses talent to the corporate sector.
A case study is instructive: A professional in a Utah local government recently cobbled together a 12-week maternity leave package for herself, combining the two weeks of partially-paid leave offered by her employer with a mix of partial-pay short-term disability leave, sick leave, vacation leave and unpaid leave. The process was complicated and took hours of her time. Many other women are not able to save up vacation and sick time. They often have difficulty arranging time off for prenatal doctor appointments, and repurposing their paid time off as maternity leave is out of the question.
Why should a public servant be obligated to use her sick days and vacation leave for prenatal or postpartum care rather than for actual sickness and vacation? Women have left the public sector because the private sector is more accommodating for their families with parental leave and child care benefits.
By taking small steps like creating more part-time professional positions and optimizing policies for those who juggle work and caregiving responsibilities, local governments can send a clear message to capable, highly trained women: We want your contributions and welcome your leadership. And more leading women will create a better Utah for all of us.
Anne Sandholtz McBride, a Utah native and current resident of Provo, has a master’s degree in Public Administration from BYU.