It is easier for women to get appointed to senior management positions than it was five years ago. There are more women chief executives in post, and appointing a woman chief executive is considered to be less of a risk than previously.
Women are also finding it easier to be appointed on their own terms - for what they believe in and with a mandate to do the job in their own way, rather than having to act like a man. Councils are recognising women have good change management skills, and many female chief executives thought they had been appointed explicitly to pursue a policy of change.
Because the women and men in our study believe women hold skills relevant to modernisation, many are optimistic about the future employment of female chief executives. The increasing involvement of consultants in the appointment process is seen by many female chief executives as leading to a more rigorous process that makes it less likely they will be discriminated against. The presence of external advisers apparently eliminates some of the bias exhibited by interview panels.
Once they are appointed, women feel they are scrutinised more than their male counterparts. They have to demonstrate their competence in a way men do not. Some participants felt they were in a no-win situation. One participant summed up the situation: 'You are seen either as an ogre or a tart.'
Female chief executives feel expectations of them are different to those of male counterparts. Other women in the organisation appear to expect them to be perfect, not just good. They are sometimes treated in quite different ways - for example, an elected member expected a kiss from his female chief executive whenever he left a meeting. Some members, largely older men, are thought to have difficulty in accepting the advice of, and being challenged by, women.
Female chief executives face particular problems in councils where there are strong masonic links and where belonging to the golf club and the Rotarians is an integral part of the culture. Some of both the male and female participants mentioned this as a highly relevant issue. Masonic influences are still felt to be strong in a few councils, and women in particular are alert to the possibility they may be under attack from people they did not know existed.
While the job of all chief executives can be a lonely one, women chief executives sometimes feel particularly isolated, especially when their councils employ very few senior women. The lot of the pioneer woman senior executive is seen as a very uncomfortable one.
Female chief executives feel they are more aware of their responsibilities as role models than male chief executives. They describe how they set out consciously to model the sorts of behaviour they expect of others and to send strong signals on issues to which they feel committed.
Women feel they are much better at networking and joining things together, managing complex workloads, seeing the 'big picture', communicating vision and values, identifying boundaries and knowing when to act and not to act, and the capacity to engage hearts and minds.
From their experience, male chief executives share some of these perceptions about their female colleagues. While it is accepted that some men are good at these things and some women are not, it is claimed these are the skills and abilities more often found among women chief executives.
Many female chief executives draw attention to the fact that they are generally much more frank than their male colleagues and are much more prepared to tackle problems which men often shelve in the 'too difficult' category. They feel some of their male colleagues and some, largely male, elected members sometimes find this threatening and uncomfortable.
Female chief executives see themselves, and are seen similarly by their male counterparts, as being better at coping with the twin pressures of work and family. Men admit they tend to assume their partners will look after the home and children.
Women feel they take a different approach to change management. While men tend to bulldoze their way through the jungle, women tend to cut a path forming alliances as they do so. Members sometimes see this difference as being less decisive than the approach thought to be adopted by male chief executives.
Women seem to take more risks with their careers than men, taking up appointments they think they will find rewarding, rather than going for status and money. By comparison, women believe men tend to adopt more linear career paths and only accept appointments they think will enhance their ability to reach the top. Very few female chief executives participating in the research had set out to be a chief executive but had arrived at the post by circuitously.
Similarly, women participants believe they are attracted to the chief executive's job for different reasons to those of their male colleagues. While they believe men tend to be attracted by the status, salary, and pension the post can offer, women report they tend to be attracted by the thought of doing a worthwhile job.
Women feel generally they need to have access to wider development opportunities. In particular, they think they should be provided with learning processes that will enhance their confidence and feelings of self-worth, to equip them to work at the political interface and to enable them to deal with complex and challenging situations.
They believe the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives, for example, could take a more proactive role in addressing the specific needs of women. There is also a feeling that organisations such as the Improvement & Development Agency and the Local Government Association do not provide good role models for the appointment of women chief executives as they are seen as male-dominated - IDeA and SOLACE are aware of such questions, and are part-funding this research along with PricewaterhouseCoopers.
This summary of our findings so far already raises a number of tricky and controversial issues.
The first is the idea that men and women have certain skills and styles found predominantly in one gender rather than the other. Some previous research suggests there is some truth in this. But there are powerful arguments in the same literature warning us to be careful about this differentiation. The identification of 'womanly' skills and qualities can be just another way of restricting women to certain kinds of roles, and trapping men into orthodox and fixed views about masculinity.
Second, we are only too aware that there are dangers in carrying out research of this sort. The potential problems concern the trap of presenting women's experiences as if they were uniform. And the focus on women in a sense makes women the problem, when in fact there are wider organisational, political, social and cultural issues lying at the heart of the experience of women in organisations.
Having said this, the encouragement received for this study, together with the sometimes vivid data beginning to emerge, justifies the idea that there are problems and challenges local government needs to address.
Third, the participants in the study so far recognise that the very role of the chief executive is less certain than before. The research is taking place in the context of a great deal of change and colleagues have told us they anticipate the role in future to manifest itself in a range of different ways, depending a lot on the strength of emerging political leaderships and changed officer/member dynamics. But things never stand still and there is never a perfect time to tackle a study like this one.
By Pam Fox and Mike Broussine, Bristol Business School, University of the West of England.