What happens when women become the majority of a city council? Expect questions. A lot of questions.

That was the message from a paid "expert” invited by the city of Austin, TX, to train city workers who must regularly interact with city’s female dominated city council. The city council now has seven women and four men.

The expert was Jonathan K. Allen, who was recently-fired city manager of a small town in Florida. Mr. Allen, who also cites having a daughter as a credential, said that a female-majority city council requires a special approach and a lot of patience. Also a paid consultant!

Allen appears not to hold the objective reasoning powers of women in high esteem. For example, he told city employees that to sell women on a costly project, instead of talking to them about dollars and cents and why it makes good financial sense, he would talk about local impact such as on schools.

Allen stated that women also ask many questions, a lesson he picked up from having a daughter. Thanks to that onslaught of questions, he said that he is now more patient and a better communicator– skills that are valuable since women are less likely to read agenda packets. Instead we supposedly ask questions that are answered in the packets on our desks!

Women may be inclined to consider more than just the bottom line, but Mr. Allen’s generalizations make it sound like working with us requires special training. Mr. Allen wasn’t the only speaker. The other was Dr. Miya Burt-Stewart, a marketing professional who singled out “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” as a valuable guidebook. I wonder if consultants are from "Boondoggle."

I am woman and I have a question: Why did Austin city managers think this training, entitled “Changing Dynamics in Government,” was necessary to begin with?

The Austin Statesman reports:

The first speaker was Jonathan K. Allen, who was a city manager of the relatively small Lauderdale Lakes, Florida. Allen was considered an expert in this field because his local city commission was all-female. His advice included:

·       Women ask lots of questions. He learned a valuable lesson on communicating with women from his 11-year-old daughter, who peppered him with questions while they were on the way to volleyball. “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.

·       Women don’t want to deal with numbers. Allen said in his city they used to have background information and financial analysis on the front pages of agenda forms. Allen says he normally would have presented the financial argument, but that his female commissioners would balk and say “Mr. Manager, I don’t want to hear about the financial argument, I want to hear about how this impacts the whole community.” He said that it may make good financial sense, but if he wants to get the votes, he has to present his arguments “in a totally different way.”

·       Women are taking over, Hillary Clinton will only encourage this. Allen talked about the general trend of more women getting involved in government, citing stats of more female mayors, for instance. “You see women in leadership positions…you will have to interact with them in a different way,” Allen said. “I submit to you if Hillary Clinton just runs, just runs for the office, you are going to see even greater numbers in leadership position, if she wins, you will see even greater numbers starting at the bottom on top.”…

When contacted about this training session, offered on March 27 in City Council chambers, city spokesman David Green confirmed the impetus for the training was the “historic change in Austin’s municipal governance, including the election of a new, majority-women City Council” and that it was a “timely and relevant professional development opportunity.”

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.”

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.

Are women in leadership so different from men that when entering public careers, officials need to train staff on how to communicate with them?

It’s important to acknowledge that men and women are different, but so different that we need to expend taxpayer dollars (in this case about $450 in hotel expenses) to listen to sweeping and pejorative statements?

In this instance, Austin’s attempt to be politically-correct and gender-conscious at the same time back-fired badly.