The presenters' advice: Be prepared for lots of questions. Don't present the fiscal impact first, because women "don't want to hear about the financial argument." And remember that while "men have egos, women have wish lists." (Whatever that means.)
Though the training session was held in late March, news about it erupted online this week after the Austin-American Statesman posted an article about the session. The tone-deaf presentation quickly went viral online with its own hashtag, #whatwomenask, and the seven female council members arranged a press conference in which they absolutely shredded the session.
City manager Marc Ott said in a statement that "opinions the outside speaker expressed in the training were disappointing and unexpected and do not reflect the views" of the city of Austin. He also said the training "should have received proper vetting" and took responsibility for that not having occurred.
The city has taken down the video of the training from its Web site, though said it will make it available upon request. But another video that recorded part of the session was posted to YouTube, and it reveals a presentation that — whatever the original intentions — is absolutely laced with gender stereotypes and references to "having to deal with" female commissioners.
One of the presenters was Jonathan Allen, a former city manager of Lauderdale Lakes, Fla. His city commission was at one point majority female and then all female. Allen mentions in the video how his 11-year-old daughter "taught me the importance of being patient" when answering her many questions, offering him an "aha" moment for how to deal with his commissioners.
Allen also mentions that his wife told him that he needed to say professional expectations should be the same for men and women, and that he shouldn't talk about women's emotions as a factor. ("So if any of y'all see her," he said, "let her know I put that in this presentation.")
Then he discussed how staffers would need to change their communication style and management techniques from ones they had used in a male-dominated environment. Don't do that, he said, and "you will be making a serious error in your professional development, because they don't process things in the same way."
For example, Allen said, he used to put fiscal information at the front of agenda packets in the past, but learned he had to do things differently. " 'Mr. Manager, I don't want to hear about the financial argument, I want to hear about how this impacts the overall community, how it impacts the families, the youth and the children,' " he says his commissioners told him. "So it may make good financial sense, but if I want to get it through and get the necessary votes, I have to present it a totally different way."
Take-home message: Women don't care about the numbers.
Unsurprisingly, the news of this training didn't sit well with the seven female members of Austin's city council. In a news conference Wednesday, they stepped up one by one and denounced it. Council member Kathie Tovo said the training may be evidence the city needs more women in leadership roles not only on the council, but in city departments and upper level management. Ann Kitchen called it "troubling" and "insulting." And Leslie Pool asked, indignantly, "Women don't read agenda information? We don't want to deal with numbers? Come on, this is 2015 in Austin, Texas, folks."
Her disbelief was understandable. While women and men are often characterized as having different leadership styles, research shows that's at least partly due to the fact that women must adapt to the prescribed gender norms the world places on them to not be too assertive. The idea that female leaders should be treated any differently, however, is simply wrong.
Joan Williams, founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings, said in an interview that "the research does show that women tend to have a more communal style, but that's because women who try the direct, authoritative style tend not to become leaders." She said the advice given in the presentation is not only based on stereotypes and condescending, but in this case, irrelevant.
"Here you're in a situation where women are in the majority, so they're not going to be receiving those messages that they have to conform to prescriptive stereotypes," Williams said.
The presenters behind the training (the other one was Miya Burt-Stewart, a consultant who drew lessons from the Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus book) have issued a statement saying their comments were taken out of context and that "any interpretation that we do not support and appreciate the growing number of women executives and elected officials in both the public and private sector is absolutely not true." In the statement, the two said it was the only communication they would share about the presentation.
Meanwhile, though the impetus for the training session may have been the election of a majority-women city council, spokesman David Green said it was never intended to focus on the idea that "because we have a majority women council now, we need to somehow operate differently or treat them differently." He said in an interview that, had it consisted instead of the women's success stories, the same controversy wouldn't have ensued. "No one's trying to defend the content," he said. "This isn't even close to reflective of the way we see the world."
Green is right. The election of a city council that has women in the majority should be a moment to celebrate, and a chance to learn from the women themselves. It shouldn't be a milestone for learning how to "deal with" women leaders and rethink the way people work.