LAWRENCE — A University of Kansas researcher has developed a survey instrument that cities across the nation can use to determine how to get more women involved in civic leadership and what challenges are in the way of women taking such positions.
Barbara Kerr, the Williamson Family Distinguished Professor of Counseling Psychology in KU’s School of Education, developed the instrument with her research team as part of the WE Women’s Empowerment initiative enacted by Kansas City, Missouri, Mayor Sly James to improve the number of women in civic leadership positions in the city. The project and underlying research is part of Kerr’s larger research goal of understanding how talent develops in women and what keeps them from reaching their full potential. She will speak about both the survey tool and helping individuals reach their potential at the Inspiring Women in Public Administration Conference, which is Thursday, June 26, at the Edwards Campus. KU's Public Management Center organized the conference.
The research is not simply about appointing women to certain positions or meeting diversity quotas, but about improving life, services and governance for all.
“One of my missions has always been to help make the world more human-friendly by listening to what women want,” Kerr said.
While the instrument has already yielded results that Kansas City leaders will use to help boost the participation of women in city leadership roles, it will soon be available to others looking to do the same. Kerr is currently preparing journal articles on the instrument and the Kansas City findings, and will author a manual for use of the tool in other locations.
“We designed our instrument so it can be used by any city in the country,” Kerr said. “And it can be used on both the city and state levels. We really want to encourage other cities and counties to go through a similar process (to Kansas City). We stress this can be a better place for everyone involved."
The Kansas City project, funded by a $23,000 grant from the Women’s Foundation of Greater Kansas City, yielded insights into why women do and do not serve in civic leadership positions. Kerr and her team surveyed three groups of women: those who serve or have served in such positions, those who were asked but declined, and those nominated by the mayor’s office and Women’s Foundation as potential candidates.
The greatest barrier to service was a lack of confidence in knowledge and leadership skills necessary to take part in civic task forces, boards or commissions. While all surveyed valued civic engagement, many said that even if they were confident in their ability to help, they simply were never asked.
All three groups of survey respondents indicated structural issues were very important to them. Many didn’t take offered roles because the meetings were scheduled at times they couldn’t attend or there were no opportunities for child care or didn’t take into consideration the meetings were being held in neighborhoods in which many women might feel uncomfortable traversing alone. Simply considering those factors, and perhaps more importantly, utilizing technology to allow participants to take part in meetings and discussions without physically being there could greatly improve the number of women involved, Kerr said.
Research has shown that men tend to overestimate their skills while women underestimate theirs. This is both beneficial to men and detrimental to women, as men — even if they are underqualified — are given the opportunity to learn and improve while women don’t have as many such chances. Cities and states can combat that by providing support to women who want to serve, Kerr said. By providing education on civic processes, news and selection for service women can by encouraged to participate.
“They need to be encouraged to see their previous experience as giving them the skills they need for leadership,” Kerr said. “They need to be welcomed, invited, asked and told that they belong.”
Inefficient meetings, being “talked over” and not being invited to join informal related conversations were other hindrances to women serving. Training commission leaders to be inclusive, democratic and to run meetings efficiently would address those problems.
“Women indicated they want to be part of meetings that are efficient. Many of them have to take time off work that they won’t get paid for,” Kerr said. “But they said they were alright with inefficient meetings as long as the work had results.”
Cities and states who undertake such explorations will be able to see what specifically they can do to improve the number of women — and ensure the most qualified candidates are chosen for service — which ties back to Kerr’s theme of making things better for all by including the perspectives of both men and women.
“The solution doesn’t lie in giving women remedial masculinity lessons. It’s about providing an environment in which they can be themselves and realize the value of their contributions,” Kerr said. “We’re fully aware that these changes are not easy to do, but they’re worth attending to.”