The City of Phoenix has an organization where women in local governments can network and share resources with each other, and there’s one in Flagstaff, too. Oro Valley Town Manager Mary Jacobs said it was about time that a similar group be created in Southern Arizona, and she set out to do just that.
Jacobs and a few women colleagues will hold their first meeting for their new chapter of Women Leading Government on Monday, Feb. 4. WLG is the name of the national organization, which has chapters in 13 U.S. cities and towns.
Their mission is to help women grow their leadership skills and network with other professionals in their field. Three years ago, WLG held its first annual conference in Arizona. Jacobs said there were about 100 women who attended the first one, and over 500 showed up last year.
Oro Valley Police Commander Kara Riley took the lead on organizing the event, and said they have received over 70 RSVPs already. She and others sent out invitations to women in governments of Sahuarita, Marana, Tucson, Sierra Vista, Benson, Willcox, Bisbee, Douglas and more. They also asked that those women spread the word to anyone else who might be interested.
“In general, because I’ve been in my field for 28 years, I think our goal is always to be able to share learning experiences that we’ve gone through in our careers to the younger generation of leaders that are coming up in our field,” Riley said.
They want to focus on mentoring and providing guidance to other women who work in government operations in any capacity. Riley said many of them have similar career goals and being able to talk about what someone has gone through to get to their positions can be helpful.
“What we hope to accomplish at that first meeting is what is everyone looking for? What would really be beneficial? Do we want formal thing with speakers, just time for networking, or a combination of both?” Jacobs said.
Throughout Jacobs’ whole career, mentoring has been very important to her. She said having a female role model with accomplishments can encourage young women to envision themselves in a similar role. Sometimes just a reassuring conversation or connecting two people in a mutual profession can make all the difference.
“Yes, there are some basic leadership principles that apply to everybody and we can all learn from them,” Jacobs said. “But sometimes it really helps to talk to another single mom.”
Although Jacobs has been Oro Valley’s town manager for just a little over a year, she has worked in local government for her entire career. After earning her Master’s in Public Administration from the University of Arizona, Jacobs worked in various senior level administration positions, including 17 years as an assistant city manager in Sierra Vista.
In 2013 Jacobs was placed on the board of the International City Managers Association. She joined under the second female president ICMA had in its 90 years of existence.
On the board, Jacobs was part of a task force established to focus on women in the profession. It intended to find out why there were so few females in the chief administration level in local government.
The task force came up with various strategies to try to solve inequality in the workplace, but Jacobs said the solution is more about changing ideologies and social norms, which doesn’t happen overnight.
Out of 3,486 ICMA members who serve in U.S. local governments at the chief administration level, only 16.9 percent of them are women. In Arizona, there are nine women who work in those roles out of a state-wide total of 54 people.
Jacobs said once you know those statistics, the next question is why? And is there anything that can be done in order to help?
Referencing Sheryl Sandberg and Nell Scovell’s successful book “Lean In,” Jacobs said many women will see a job opening, read the description and think they aren’t qualified enough to get the job, so they don’t even apply.
“Women feel like they need about 90 percent of the qualifications in order to apply for that job,” she said. “Men, on the other hand, [have] 50 percent and say ‘I’m qualified for that job!’ and they go ahead and submit for it.”
One of the things Jacobs wants to do in the WLG group is to encourage women to apply for those challenging or higher-level jobs.
“When you start seeing more women in those leadership roles, people start visualizing that women can actually do that job,” she said. “So this is going to be a gradual process as opposed to ‘I have found the problem and we are going to be able to fix it.’”
Right now, the focus of WLG is on women who already work in local government operations. In the future, Jacobs can see a possibility for expanding to include women who have an interest in joining the field.
“I’m so grateful to have the opportunity to serve the community in this role,” she said. “So regardless of whether I was female or male, I think it’s important for me to give back, and this is the area that I think I can give back in the most.”