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Austin City Employees Given Special Training To Deal With…Women?

Austin’s city council is now majority women, and they’re not happy with a recent effort to teach city employees how female minds work.

Austin City Employees Given Special Training To Deal With…Women?
[Photo: Flickr user techedlive]

Change is difficult, and it’s important that organizations give their employees resources and support during a leadership transition. Which is why the city of Austin, Texas invited experts from as far away as Florida to help city employees deal with women. Wait, what?

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As the Austin American-Statesman reports, the newly elected Austin City Council is majority women for the first time in its history (seven women and four men including the mayor). To help city employees who interact with the council function in the new world order, the city manager’s office offered a two-hour training in March on how to talk business with women.

Jonathan K. Allen, who was a city manager in Lauderdale Lakes, Fla., when it had an all-female city commission, helpfully offered the advice that women ask a lot of questions, so patience is paramount. He learned this not only from his job, but from his 11-year-old daughter, who once asked him a bunch of questions on the way to volleyball practice.

As the Statesman‘s Lilly Rockwell reports: “’In a matter of 15 seconds, I got 10 questions that I had to patiently respond to,’ Allen said. Allen says female City Council members are less likely to read agenda information and instead ask questions. He says it’s tempting to just tell them to read the packet, but ‘my daughter taught me the importance of being patient’ even when they may already know the answer to the question.”

Allen also cautioned against using too many numbers when working with women on the council. He said that while he would normally have presented arguments in financial terms, he learned that this did not work with female commissioners. “Mr. Manager, I don’t want to hear about the financial argument,” they would say. “I want to hear about how this impacts the whole community.” Allen also warned that it’s important to keep these things in mind when dealing with women at all levels of government, because more of them are starting to run for elected office, and that is only going to increase, because Hillary. “I submit to you if Hillary Clinton just runs, just runs for the office, you are going to see even greater numbers in leadership positions; if she wins, you will see even greater numbers starting at the bottom on top.” Can you imagine.

The city also invited a woman to speak on the topic: Dr. Miya Burt-Stewart, who owns a business development and marketing firm. According to Rockwell, Burt-Stewart’s talk drew partly from the book Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, emphasizing that men act on facts, while women act on emotion, and that “’Men have egos, women have wish lists.'”

After watching the training session, Rockwell decided to get an even more expert opinion on whether the advice was as sexist and grossly overgeneralizing as it seemed, or if there was something to it. According to Rockwell:

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I reached out to Emily Amanatullah, who studies gender issues and is an assistant professor of management at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas, to help sort this out. “At the outset, it definitely feels archaic, like ‘The women are usually in the kitchen, how do we deal with them now that they have power,’” Amanatullah said. “It does reek of old norms and often it’s called benevolent sexism—they are not putting women down, but they are in a way.”

She said there is very little research that backs up the idea that women and men process decisions differently given the same set of circumstances. “There is no blanket men are like this, women are like that,” she said. “In certain contexts, you might see differences, but it’s not necessarily based on biological differences.” For instance, she has studied female assertiveness at the bargaining table. “We see that generally women tend to be a little less assertive, but that’s not because women are less assertive but because there are situational obstacles, they are punished if they assert themselves.”

Amanatullah did agree with one point that Allen made—women do tend to ask more questions. There is research that indicates that women communicate differently, and they are less likely to assert themselves in a group context or meeting, and are more likely to ask a question “as a way to get their voice heard. in a non-threatening, non-aggressive way,” she said.

This morning, after Rockwell’s story broke, the Austin City Council held a press conference to address the training, which evidently no city council member had been aware of when it happened in March. Unsurprisingly, they were appalled.

“All of us as elected officials strive to be great leaders, not just great female leaders, or good for young people, or great minority leaders, but great leaders,” said city councilor Ellen Troxclair. “There were so many things that make women great leaders that were overlooked in the city training.”

Councilor Ann Kitchen took particular issue with the suggestion that asking questions is a leadership style to be tolerated rather than welcomed. “This is 2015 in Austin, Texas,” she said. “We have serious problems and we need to be asking questions.” Council member Sheri Gallo agreed. “Yes, women ask questions, but both women and men are asking them,” said Gallo. “Effective leaders ask questions. Then they evaluate and listen to the answers. What was so troubling was that the training grouped all women together and stereotyped their skills and how they process information. That was so inappropriate. This does not reflect Austin’s values.”

Added councilor Leslie Pool, “I have to question a culture that allowed such a training to occur. Women have served in leadership positions for years, this is not our first trip to the rodeo. We don’t read agenda information? We don’t want to deal with numbers? Come on, folks, this is 2015.”

Rockwell reports that city spokesman David Green told her feedback to the training was positive, although they didn’t conduct a survey to determine any actual outcomes. It’s well established that having gender balance or majority women in leadership positions can influence an organization’s culture and performance, but it’s more likely because different voices and perspectives come to the table, rather than because men master a patient, math-free zen to deal with them.

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About the author

Evie Nagy is a former staff writer at FastCompany.com, where she wrote features and news with a focus on culture and creativity. She was previously an editor at Billboard and Rolling Stone, and has written about music, business and culture for a variety of publications.

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