Gender and Authority in the Public Sector: The Case of Local Government Chief Administrative Officers in the United States

Sebawit Genete Bishu, Florida International University


In 2016, women represented 16.6% of all Chief Administrative Officers (CAOs) in local governments across the United States. Previous studies have investigated gender disparities in managerial representation, which is explained by the glass ceiling phenomenon; however, little is known about whether the women that occupy these male dominated positions have the similar levels of responsibilities as their male counterparts. Thus, the purpose of this dissertation is to understand if gender disparities in levels of work authority manifest as a new form of the glass ceiling. Work authority in this study is operationalized as CAOs’ sanctioning authority (control over personnel operations) and decision-making authority (control over formal operations). Using a mixed methods research design, this investigation is implemented in two phases. The first phase employs Ordinary Least Square (OLS) regression to explore the relationship between CAOs’ gender and CAOs’ level of work authority as well as the relationship between CAOs’ levels of work authority and annual pay. In the second phase, using a qualitative research method, I conduct an in-depth investigation of similarities and differences in the career paths of CAOs and the factors that shape their career-related decisions. This research has five main findings. First, female CAOs do not have similar level of sanctioning authority as their male counterparts. Second, disparities in level of sanctioning authority yield economic inequality among CAOs. Third, male and female CAOs take different career paths. Last, female CAOs perform dual roles—professional and personal—whereas most male CAOs are less burdened with household responsibilities in their personal lives. Last, for female CAOs with family responsibilities, their career paths are significantly fashioned by the presence of institutional and social support networks. Findings inform policy makers and public management practices. It informs that gender-based disparities in the workforce continually manifest in new forms, creating unequal employment opportunities for men and women in the workforce. Such disparities also continue perpetuating economic inequalities among men and women in the workforce. Also, it informs public management practices of the critical impact that institutional support has on leveling the playing field women to participate in male-dominated careers.

Subject Area

Behavioral Sciences|Public administration|Public policy

Recommended Citation

Bishu, Sebawit Genete, "Gender and Authority in the Public Sector: The Case of Local Government Chief Administrative Officers in the United States" (2017). ProQuest ETD Collection for FIU. AAI10747025.