Joni Wickham, director of public affairs for Mayor Sly James of Kansas City, Mo., is one of eight women in the mayor’s 12-person staff. She is currently working, with a team of other women city employees and the mayor himself, to implement the Women’s Empowerment Blueprint.
Wickham agrees with the need for this blueprint on a personal level.
“One thing is always constant (in government): I’m usually one of few women in the room. And, a lot of times, I might be in the room, but I’m not the one talking,” she said.
James wrote on the city’s website of the need for this blueprint, stating that women are under-represented in business, government and leadership positions. This fact, he said, does a disservice to Kansas City: “Women make up 51% of the population and are receiving higher levels of education at a faster pace than their male counterparts. We can use that to our advantage and it is good business to do so.” Currently, about 40 percent of the city’s full-time employees are women.
Mayor James unveiled the Women’s Empowerment Blueprint at Central Exchange March 27. The blueprint was developed as a result of surveys distributed to women employees.
At the unveiling, James said, “(Our goal is) women being able to climb that ladder without bumping their heads on the way to the top.”
This ladder-climbing will be facilitated through the blueprint’s two goals: by creating “an inclusive, diverse organization” for city employees and creating an inviting environment for “entrepreneurial women-owned businesses.”
Kimiko Gilmore, assistant city manager for special projects, said that city government is an appealing career sector to women: ladder-climbing is an option, but so is jumping sideways, from department to department. She said that a woman should feel free to use the skills she learns in Parks and Recreation to excel in a new job in the Neighborhoods and Housing Services department.
The blueprint was developed around research conducted by the Women’s Foundation of Greater Kansas City, Central Exchange and University of Kansas. While the research by each institution focused on different areas, all used a survey format to gather information from women employees.
The Women’s Foundation worked with KU to create a survey around city boards and commissions. Surveys were sent to women currently participating on boards or commissions, past participants and a pool of prospective candidates, said Wendy Doyle, president and CEO of the Women’s Foundation.
This survey was returned at a rate of 51 percent, which is almost unheard of, Doyle said. According to Forbes.com, return rate for employee surveys is typically between 30 and 40 percent.
“That really speaks to how women are really wanting to speak up and have a voice,” she said.
Doyle believes making boards and commissions more accessible to interested women is a crucial part of empowering Kansas City women to be leaders. The surveys showed that women are concerned about time and location of meetings: early-morning meetings are hard when mothers are trying to get children to school, and evening meetings must happen in neighborhoods where women feel safe walking to their cars, Doyle said. Doyle also said that women, who are often balancing children and other obligations, are very concerned about meetings following a schedule.
Gilmore mentioned another reason women may be excluded from boards and commissions: “It’s about who you know,” she said, indicating that women may not know the men who currently serve on boards and commissions, and are therefore excluded.
Making boards and commissions more accessible to female employees is not the only obstacle that survey results suggested fixes for. Women asked for professional development workshops, tuition reimbursements and better daycare options, for example. All three examples were unexpected requests and come with their own obstacles: workshops will have to be open to men and women since they will be offered by a government agency, room in the budget will have to be made for tuition reimbursement and the city human resources department will have to work hard to develop more daycare options. Wickham said that these obstacles will not stop implementation.
“The implementation of this blueprint isn’t going to happen overnight, but that doesn’t mean it’s something we’re not going to push towards,” she said. “But we’re in it for the long run. This isn’t just something from a report… that’s going to be sitting on a desk collecting dust.”
An interesting facet of the blueprint is the fact that it includes every suggestion from the surveys and focus groups.
“I can’t think of a single thing that was suggested that we didn’t include,” Wickham said. “We didn’t want to ask people for their feedback and then ignore it. We didn’t want to be disingenuous or anything like that.”
Asking for the input of women that work in many different departments was crucial to developing a fair and balanced blueprint, Wickham also said.
“For someone like myself, sitting in an office on the twenty-ninth floor of city hall, there’s no way I can anticipate what a female employee in public works or the fire department (wants),” she said. “I don’t think our experiences are the same.”
Overall, the various studies commissioned to inform the blueprint all had the same goal: empowering women to succeed.
“You do have something to offer as a woman,” Doyle said. “Don’t be afraid to step forward and raise your hand.”