Last June I wrote in this column about the startling lack of gender balance in Roaring Fork Valley governmental leadership (“Male dominance in local government”, Aspen Daily News, June 22, 2012). I hoped to stir some interest in what I found to be a surprising statistic, that in this otherwise forward leaning, progressive region, we might be risking oversight of our local governments to “good ole’ boys.”
At that time, I completed a survey of elected and appointed leadership positions in the Roaring Fork Valley’s seven full service municipal governments of Garfield and Pitkin counties, Aspen, Snowmass Village, Basalt, Carbondale, and Glenwood Springs (I excluded Eagle County as the majority of its governmental leaders reside and work in the Vail Valley). I discovered that of the 147 elected and appointed leadership positions in these seven organizations, over 70 percent were held by men. This result seemed overly weighted toward men in comparison to Bureau of Labor Statistics results indicating that nationally over 51 percent of management, professional and related occupations are held by women.
In the spring of 2013 it appears little has changed. Aspen has embarked upon its biennial May election process, and to date candidacy gender is almost exclusively male. As of this writing, only one announced council candidate (out of three) is a woman — Historic Preservation Commission Chair and noted landscape architect Ann Mullins announced last week that she is joining the campaign. Former council member Dwayne Romero and Art Daily are the other two announced candidates so far. The mayor’s race has proven even less gender balanced with an all-male field of six. All four sitting council members — Torre, Steve Skadron, Derek Johnson and Adam Frisch — are joined by relative newcomer Maurice Emmer, and L.J. Erspamer.
So if my math is correct, out of nine declared candidates only one is female. Why are Aspen’s talented female leaders avoiding local politics like the plague? What would be the potential benefit if more of them were willing to run for mayor or council?
The answer to the first question may be that many are simply not interested in struggling with the effort necessary to turn Aspen’s ship of state back toward a more balanced and inclusive leadership style. Not surprisingly, a lot of research shows that women often face a sort of cultural “double bind” in seeking leadership roles. According to a 2007 Northwestern University study by Alice Eagly, published in the February 2007 “Psychology of Women Quarterly,” women leaders are expected to be “communal” — displaying such traits as kindness, concern for others, warmth and gentleness. Men on the other hand are expected to be “agentic,” displaying confidence, aggressiveness and self direction in transacting business in a generally impersonal manner. In order to be accepted as leaders, women usually must delicately balance both communal and agentic qualities. Men more typically must only display the agentic qualities associated with their gender, particularly when they are surrounded only by other men.
While this is hardly groundbreaking research in general terms it is an interesting dynamic in 2013 Aspen, Colorado, as Aspen’s City Council is unquestionably an “agentic” leadership body. Its five current members are driven by strong personalities, and function with a more transactional rather than interpersonal orientation. There have been exceptions, the community process for developing the Aspen Area Community Plan being one. But they are generally more comfortable unilaterally defining problems and taking credit for solutions, as they did with the plastic bag ban and fee — an initiative that has landed the city in court, defending their silly 20-cent paper grocery bag fee against allegations that it constitutes an illegal tax. If Eagly’s analysis is correct, women are typically going to be less interested than men in joining such a group.
So what is lost to Aspen by having such a male-dominated local government? Remember, not only is the City Council all male, but Aspen’s top eight executives, being the city attorney, the city manager, and the city manager’s six executive direct reports — two assistant city managers, the capital asset director, the community development director, the finance director and the police chief — are all men.
According to Eagly, most research indicates that the perceived effectiveness of women in leadership roles compares favorably to men in organizations that demonstrate gender balance in leadership roles. In “masculine” environments on the other hand, such as the city of Aspen, where men dominate almost all leadership roles, women typically are perceived as less effective; a predictable vicious cycle of perception based on gender. What ends up being lost in such environments is also predictable. It is the decision making qualities most often (but not exclusively) associated with female leaders: empathy, inclusiveness, consideration and patience. These are some very important leadership qualities for public organizations to possess, and they could use more emphasis in Aspen City Hall.
Whatever happens in May’s election, don’t blame the guys. At least they are willing to run and serve. Still, history demonstrates over and over that when women leave men to their own devices for very long, great peril from “good ole’ boy” shenanigans often follows close behind. Are there any more women willing to help return gender balance to Aspen’s governmental leadership? It’s an uphill battle, but I for one hope so.