A new program in Kansas City, Mo. seeks to increase the role of women in city government. (Logo courtesy of Kansas City, Mo. Mayor’s Office)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The city of Paris may have just elected its first woman mayor, but Kansas City mayor Sly James has come up with a blueprint to empower women that he believes is the first of its kind in the country and will provide a guide for other cities to follow.

WE, or the Women’s Empowerment initiative, will help increase the number of women not just in city jobs but also in high-ranking municipal government positions, it will make it easier for women-owned companies to contract for city projects, it will encourage women to join the many boards and commissions that impact urban life and it will even look at issues like the establishment of a child care center in city hall. (Hey, when three of the mayor’s staff members were nursing moms, that led to an improved facility for breastfeeding on the job.)

It’s an ambitious plan and one that James is excited about.

“I spend half of my life in meetings,” he said. “And often there’s no women in those meetings.” Yet, as he points out, women make up 51 percent of the population and are now graduating from college at a higher rate than men. Women are a resource for government and business that should not be overlooked.

He hasn’t in his office. “Eight of 12 of my staff members are women,” he said. “We look for the best person for the job and wow, guess what, they’re women.”

The idea for WE  started with an internal review of the city before looking externally at how to get women involved. That internal examination is what makes the program unique, said James, who was named one of the five most innovative mayors in the country by Newsweek in 2012.

Although women fill 29 percent of city jobs, they hold just 23 percent of the department director positions or higher. Fortunately, there’s no pay disparity for the same job at city hall. But because fewer women get those top positions, income disparity exists. “Women are not going to rise to the upper level of income unless the glass is taken off the top,” James said.

Barriers need to be identified — and removed. He’s blunt in his assessment of what may be holding back women. “I don’t want to be sexist but it seems to me, despite this alleged age of enlightenment” that women still get involved in the biggest share of duties at home. “That has to impact what you’re able and available to do and, frankly, what you have the energy to do.”

James seems empathetic to women’s issues. Describing himself as “a black man who grew up during the Civil Rights movement,” he said, “I think I’m sensitive to discrimination and unequal opportunities because I’m a minority.”

The plan for WE has been more than five months in the making, as the mayor’s office partnered with Central Exchange, the Women’s Foundation of Greater Kansas City and the University of Missouri-Kansas City Women’s Center for several months of research, including focus groups, to answer, in part, that age-old question: What do women want?

As far as the workplace at City Hall goes, women want on-site, affordable, quality child care. He agrees. “From my perspective, if a woman knows her children are five, six, eight floors below and she can check on them if there’s a problem, it eases her mind.” And it means a parent doesn’t have to go down to the parking garage, leave work and then return.

Flex-time has been another request and it may help make employees more productive, James said. “At the end of the day, it’s all about productivity in the workplace.”

But the blueprint goes far beyond providing child care or flex time:

Boards, commissions and task forces

Those boards, commissions and task forces exist for a reason: Their decisions and policies can affect the daily lives of a city’s residents. But few women serve on them.

“I’ve been to meetings that if it weren’t for me, it would be a bunch of white guys,” James said. “Don’t get me wrong — there’s nothing wrong with white guys but that’s just one perspective.”

Kansas City Mayor Sly James (courtesy of Mayor’s Office)

Women bring different qualities to the table: “Research tells us that the female perspective adds an important dimension to organizations because they are communicative, collaborative, task-driven and goal-oriented,” James said.

So why aren’t there more women serving on these boards?

Wendy Doyle, the president and CEO of the Women’s Foundation of Greater Kansas City, contracted with the University of Kansas to do research on the barriers that keep women from involvement in city boards and commissions.

My favorite response from the focus group portion of the study: “Nobody asked!” In other research, women said they didn’t know or understand the selection process. They were also concerned about the time commitment as well as wasting time in inefficient meetings.

The study’s summary stated that women need to be mentored and they need more knowledge of civic issues and structures.

“We also found barriers for working moms,” Doyle said. “Does the time of the day conflict with child care or school? What about the safety of the location?”

Complete results of the research will be released April 21. “There’s been nothing like this done before,” Doyle said.

Helping to find the women with the knowledge, experience and interest to serve on these boards will be the Women’s Foundation.

Women-owned businesses

Getting certified as a WBE, or Women’s Business Enterprise, can lead to more opportunities for bidding on government projects as a certain percentage will go to women and minorities. But that certification process can be a barrier, said CiCi Rojas, president and CEO of Central Exchange, a group for professional women that provides development and networking opportunities.

“We do know that the perception of the certification process for WBE, or Women Business Enterprises, is unnecessarily long and burdensome,” said Rojas. “It’s not an easy process, but it shouldn’t be so you can ensure that businesses are actually women owned and operated.”

It could be “streamlined,” she said, with Central Exchange becoming a partner organization with Women Business Enterprise National Council to certify local businesses. That would create a “one-stop shop” so that women can focus on running their businesses rather than devoting time and resources to the certification process, which sometimes has to be done two or three times because of Kansas City’s location straddling the state line of Kansas and Missouri.

Careers at city hall

Reaching women still in school will be the goal of the Women’s Center at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

For starters, the center is sponsoring a panel discussion in April on city careers that will feature a deputy chief of police, the director of public works, an assistant city manager and the deputy director of parks and recreation, all of whom are women.

Dr. Brenda Bethman, director of the center, said her aim is for students to get exposure to careers, gain experience and have the opportunity for internships. New interdisciplinary core classes, required for all students, will have a service requirement that could include city projects.

“We want [careers in city government] to be an option on their radar,” she said about women students at UMKC.

Rojas of the Central Exchange wants career women to consider  city government jobs as well. “It’s an opportunity to transfer skills,” she said. “Women who are downsized from corporate jobs or who want to do something different can work for a municipality and affect the quality of life.” Jobs can be found in areas ranging from arts and culture to parks and recreation.

For those unfamiliar with Kansas City’s history, Kay Barnes (cousin of legendary newsman Walter Cronkite) made history here when she was the first woman elected mayor in 1999 and then reelected in 2003. Term limits kept her from running again. And James is not the first African-American mayor of Kansas City; Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), elected to head the city in 1991, has that distinction.

So yes, as the song goes, everything’s up to date in Kansas City.