It's a Boy! the Birth of Public Administration and Its Implications for Today

By Wyatt, Louise | The Public Manager, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

It's a Boy! the Birth of Public Administration and Its Implications for Today


Wyatt, Louise, The Public Manager


The birth of public administration, like that of any profession, was very much a product of its time and place in history. It emerged during a period dominated by masculine rhetoric and even today continues to embrace many of those values such as efficiency and rationality. This begs the question: how do women fit into this picture? Though women have made great strides over the past several decades, few would argue that they hold the same presence as men in public administration, perhaps making one wonder whether the historical culture of public administration has hampered such efforts. Though it is not possible to prove a direct causal relationship, this article seeks to offer an early cultural perspective on the profession as well as a contemporary description of women in public administration today.

In a political world that remains largely dominated by men, the importance of having women as professional public administrators cannot be overstated. Though elected officials do not reflect the country's demographics, a representative bureaucracy can help compensate for this in both symbolic and practical ways. Furthermore, research indicates that female administrators may approach issues differently than men, such as being more citizen-oriented. Public policy can only benefit from a greater variety in perspectives.

Women in public administration do not necessarily face barriers that are significantly different from those facing women in any profession, and in fact data exists that women do not necessarily feel unwelcome in public administration. However, one has to consider whether its pronounced history of masculine rhetoric might be an additional hurdle for women to achieve parity in public administration. The recognition of this possibility might encourage dialogue not only about making public administration a more inviting profession for women, but also becoming more concerned with traditionally female values such as effectiveness rather than efficiency.

A Quick History Lesson

Noted historian Camilla Stivers has argued that the era giving birth to professional public administration was one dominated by a culture of masculinity. At the turn of the 20th century, politics remained a manly world of fist fights and cane whackings, in large part because of the continued disenfranchisement of women. The rhetoric of manhood was so pervasive and convincing that popular spokesmen for traditional culture, such as Theodore Roosevelt, even used it to justify American jingoism and imperialism in Cuba and the Philippines.

In response to Woodrow Wilson's 1887 call for the study of public administration, men, looking for an alternative to the somewhat shady world of politics, turned to government reform, creating organizations such as bureaus of municipal reform. To their chagrin, they were negatively associated with the female social reformers already active as part of the greater Progressive movement of the time. Opponents of government reform used derogatory labels such as "namby-pamby, goody-goody gentlemen" and "man milliners," calling into question the masculinity of these male government reformers.

To legitimize the profession, public administrators swathed themselves in the culturally acceptable language of masculinity. They used terms such as "efficient" and "rational," drawn from the emerging field of scientific management, to describe the way in which they believed government should operate. Efficiency was supposed to serve as a guiding beacon for public administrators, rather than "softer" concepts associated with female reformers such as morality and effectiveness. By viewing government as a place of business--in sharp contrast to the female "municipal housekeeping" of the day--early male reformers set a decidedly masculine tone for the field of public administration.

Women in the Field Today

Many would argue that this masculine legacy--a narrow focus on efficiency rather than effectiveness--continues to haunt our government bureaucracies today. …

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