Working for Justice

“Mad Men” Values Return to Austin City Council

The good news: This summer, women took a majority of seats on the Austin City Council for the first time ever.  The bad news: The City felt the need to “prepare” staff to work with women by putting on a training conducted by tone deaf speakers propounding culturally incompetent and antiquated gender stereotypes.

Assistant City Manager Anthony Snipes organized the training called “The Changing Dynamics in Governance; Women Leading in Local Government.”  The training was videotaped and features two speakers hired to train the council on how to talk to a city council dominated by women.  Approximately seventy-five employees attended the training, most of them women.  Unfortunately, this training was not to applaud women for overcoming the institutional barriers that are in place but rather to teach men how to deal with the new foreigners at the table.  The video birthed the hashtag #whatwomenask, debunking the sexist and offensive undercurrent of the meeting.

Former city manager Jon Allen of Lauderdale Lakes, Florida was the first guest speaker.  He discussed his experience transitioning from working with a mostly male commission to an all-female commission.  Allen preached that while the overall professional expectations between males and females do not change, the dynamics of how you interact do.  Allen makes broad generalizations about how specifically tailored his approach must be in order to “deal” with women while tossing around some hot button words such as “sensitive” and “emotional.”  He had the following nuggets of wisdom to offer:

Women ask a lot of questions and thus one should change their communication style when working with “them.”  He asserts that men and women do not speak the same language and that women will question the city attorney instead of in the past when men just accepted whatever the attorney said.  Maybe it is time for someone to pay attention and ask some questions.  Maybe someone should have questioned this presentation before it was scheduled?

Women are not fond of discussing financial matters so you have to find another way to “deal” with them.  He claims that if you put a business decision before men they will make a fiscally based decision; but a female commission will be more concerned with the non-fiscal, community impact.  Instead of applauding women for their ability to consider a multitude of factors in their decision and encouraging their counterparts to do the same, Allen continues his Mad Men-like declarations as if women just don’t like numbers and disregard finances.

Second to speak to the audience was Dr. Miya Burt-Stewart, a business development consultant.  Regrettably, Dr. Burt-Stewart used the broadest brush of sexism to color the training with unprofessional and outdated stereotypes such that men act on facts and women act on emotions.  She founded her beliefs in the 1992 book “Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.”

City Manager Marc Ott apologized for the training, which he claims was inapposite to the values of Austin.  The city has since removed the training video.

Instead of focusing on women not receiving equal pay or displaying statistics on a missing minority female voice, Austin’s diversity training focused on helping men do their jobs better by focusing on outdated falsities.  I would like to congratulate the councilmembers who were elected and the City of Austin who now has a more representative legislative body.  I look forward to seeing what you accomplish.

Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP

Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP is a nationwide litigation law firm with offices in New York, Washington, DC, San Francisco, San Diego, Nashville, and Baltimore. We represent individuals against powerful interests. We act as a private attorney general in support of the private and public good. Learn More

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