Worcester Councilor Lukes Rails Against City’s ‘Cement Ceiling’ for Women
Friday, June 15, 2012
“It’s not just a glass ceiling at city hall,” Lukes said, raising the issue of gender discrimination while also raising the issue of too few women on the city’s political scene. “It’s a concrete ceiling. Convincing women to enter the political arena is so difficult. It is dominated by men.”
Outraged by Colleague
Lukes’ ire was raised during a council meeting at which District 3 City Councilor George Russell asked for more information about the nonprofit organization Worcester Regional Research Bureau. The president and CEO of the bureau is Roberta Schaefer, who was at the meeting to speak against a Responsible Employer Ordinance. The way Lukes sees it Russell made his comments because Schaefer is a woman.
His comment, Lukes said, “was meant to produce a chilling atmosphere to prevent any more her conversation.” Information on the Research Bureau, Lukes said, is readily available and “everyone knows who Roberta Schaefer is.” She said the question would not have been asked if the CEO were a man.
The charge drew a stern rebuke from Russell, who said: “That is completely, completely false. My question of the Research Bureau had nothing to do with gender. I’m insulted that the councilor would say that.”
Few Female Workers
Whether Lukes was correct in her interpretation of Russell’s intention, her concerns about the atmosphere inside city hall keep a light shining on an issue many have raised for years in Worcester – Why are there not more female city employees? It is a problem not exclusive to Worcester, but the numbers here are sobering: Of the more than 1,600 employees working in various departments serving 10 different functions, a little more than 22 percent of them are women, according to the latest information from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The latest numbers reflect 2011. In fact, women outnumber men in just two cases: financial administration and the combined number working in civil defense, human resources, library and vehicle maintenance. There were 44 women in financial offices, compared to 33 men. In the latter areas, there were a combined 185 female employees and 97 men.
When it comes to hiring women for municipal positions, Lukes said, “When we have the opportunity, I’m not sure it’s clearly being taken. On the other hand, at least we haven’t lost ground. We’ve maintained our own.”
The lack of women in city and elected positions has been “the single most frustrating issue I’ve faced in public office,” Lukes said. “I’ve tried to get women to run for public office, even School Committee.”
District 4 City Councilor Sarai Rivera acknowledged the disparity between male and female employees, saying: “For decades we have been fighting to get positions of equality. That’s my concern as well.”
Rivera questioned whether the city has been deliberate enough in its job searches, adding: “Is it we don’t have educated women? I know for a fact that’s not the case. Are women educated? Yes. Are they intelligent? Yes. Why, then, do we not have them as city employees? I want answers to that.”
City Manager Michael O’Brien was not available for comment. An attempt to obtain comment from Mayor Joseph Petty was also unsuccessful.
Women Are Targets
In her comments to GoLocalWorcester, Lukes brought the issue far beyond hiring practices, saying the city has fostered an atmosphere geared toward keeping women on the outside looking in.
“Women are an easy target if they don’t get along to go along,” Lukes said. “You can be a tough guy, but you can’t be a tough girl.”
The councilor referenced a past council meeting during which she said one colleague, “who intended to make my age an issue,” gave her a birthday cake with her age on it. “Do you think he would have done that if I was a man? I don’t think so.”
Rivera would not go so far as to say there is an anti-woman atmosphere in city government, saying she simply hasn’t been around long enough. She is a newly-elected city councilor.
“I’ve only been here six months,” Rivera said. “I’m a woman and I’ve been treated with respect, but I’m also a city councilor. I know the city manager is willing to have this conversation and see that we actually move forward with it.”
In the short time she has been in and around city hall, Rivera said, no female employees have approached her with concerns, adding, “I haven’t had anything specifically said to me,”but we don’t interact with many women. Most of the department heads are men.”
There is Disparity
Russell agreed there is an obvious disparity between male and female city employees – he acknowledged the same about racial minorities, an issue GoLocalWorcester raised in a recent story.
“During the evaluation of the city manager I asked that more of a priority be made in reaching out to minority groups. Should the city hire more women? I haven’t looked at the numbers, but I know on the night of the evaluation there was a good number of women representing their departments. Whether there are enough of them, I don’t know.”
The answer is clear to Lukes, who said she knows she will be vilified for speaking out. Remaining silent, on the other hand, would accomplish nothing, she said.
“Shrugging your shoulders is not going to solve it,” said Lukes. “I can’t avoid the subject. I’m coming toward the end of my political career and I have not seen any substantive change in getting women more involved.”
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