Local government is undergoing a cultural renaissance. In many councils the culture is shifting away from a top down style of management to one of openness, collaboration, and self-determination.
This fundamental culture shift is a key opportunity for women. It is a chance to assess whether the qualities we normally value in leadership are the right ones. When we think of traditional leadership qualities, what comes to mind? Authority, strength, decisiveness? Probably. Empathy, social awareness, openness to challenge? Less likely.
The first set of characteristics are generally seen as male characteristics, and the latter female. This is not to say women cannot be authoritative, strong, and decisive – of course they can. However, as countless other frustrated women have pointed out, authority and decisiveness in women is frequently labelled as being bossy.
So female leaders are stuck – if you exhibit traditional leadership qualities you are considered domineering, but if you show a different skill set you are overlooked. Is it necessary to adopt the traditional traits of leadership, or can you now be taken seriously while being yourself?
This is something we will be exploring at NLGN’s inaugural local government International Women’s Day event. Fifteen female council chief executives will join more than 200 women who are at the start of their careers for an afternoon of speed mentoring, networking, and group discussion.
Having this conversation isn’t just for the benefit of women – it affects men, too. Loosening the expectation of what makes a good leader allows everyone to have their strengths recognised. Male leaders can be just as empathetic, persuasive and open as women, but often don’t feel they can show the strength of these characteristics.
So how do we go about bringing this change? Part of this is about unconscious bias when recruiting and promoting. People are often drawn to others similar to them, where it is easier to recognise potential in a similar background and leadership style, but this makes it harder for women to get promoted without mimicking the same style. Those in leadership positions need to understand the importance of skills they might not have, and be willing to promote, mentor and value people with these.
In 2017, 78% of council employees were women – but only 33% of chief executives are women. There is not a problem of a lack of women in the sector, but instead women’s careers are stalling before reaching the top.
As local government will continue to evolve and find new ways of working, we also need a new style of leadership. We need a working environment where everyone is free to lead in whatever way comes naturally to them, while encouraging and supporting a whole generation of new leaders behind them – both men and women.