We should talk, Austin. You know we love you—Franklin BBQ and the Alamo Drafthouse were born there!—but sometimes your reputation as the progressive island of whatever in the middle of a red state is so ill-deserved, it embarrasses not just your own citizens, but everybody else in Texas: After all, Austin is more backwards when it comes to things like race than any of the other five biggest cities in Texas.
It’s hard to know for sure, but the fact that Austin city manager Marc Ott’s office scheduled a training and brought in outside experts to help them transition to the new city council—specifically, to the fact that 70% of the incoming city councillors are women—is not a great look for the fuzzy little hobbit’s shire that Austin sometimes likes to pretend that it is. (Worth noting: The seven-person city manager’s office is staffed by six men and one woman.)
Everybody knows how to deal with women at work: No bright light, don’t get them wet, and never, ever feed them after midnight. (Update: apparently that’s Gremlins, we regret the error.) But the city thought the staffers at Austin City Hall needed more advice:
[A]pparently this represented such a huge change in governance that the city manager’s office thought the city staff who regularly interact with the City Council needed extra training – in the form of a two-hour training session in March with two speakers from Florida – on how to talk to a female-dominated City Council after decades of rule by men.
The first speaker was Jonathan K. Allen, who is a city manager of the relatively small Lauderdale Lakes, Florida. Allen is considered an expert in this field because his local city commission is all-female.
The story from the Austin American-Statesman goes on to offer glimpses of the sort of advice that Allen offered, gleaned from his years of experience interacting with women—including his own 11-year-old daughter, who taught him that “women ask a lot of questions” when she, er, asked him a lot of questions one day. While it’s true that men rarely ask questions because they already have all the answers (and the ones that they don’t currently possess they are likely to glean while off hunting), reasonable people can find the fact that Allen’s example of how women in a professional setting behave comes from an interaction he had with a child who looks to him for answers because he’s her daddy a bit curious.
Similarly, women’s aversion to numbers is well-documented: “Math class is tough,” noted gender theorist Barbie once declared, “Party dresses are fun!” (Update: she is a plastic doll.) But Allen felt the need to reinforce this indisputable fact. As the Statesman reports, women reject good, old-fashioned, manly math in favor of discussion of feelings: “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.”
There’s more, too, in the form of a video of Allen’s performance, talking about how, when dealing with women, the first thing to keep in mind is “they don’t process things in the same way.”
That’s true, of course. Women’s skulls are, of course, enormous, but even the largest of them have brains no bigger than tennis balls. (Update: actually, that appears to be dinosaurs.) Men typically translate all information they receive into guitar solos and grilling tips, while input received by women gets processed out as stardust and dreams—but it’s equally obvious that, given that half of the people in the world are women, including half of the people in Austin, every man in city hall already has experience dealing with them literally all the time.
All of which is to say that listening to Allen talk about women as an abstract, foreign “they” (i.e., like they’re friggin’ gremlins) is bizarre. Obviously his advice is rooted in old stereotypes—trust us, plenty of women like numbers, and plenty of dudes love to ask questions—but it’s also hard to blame Allen for giving the weird, retrograde spiel: If you’re going to be brought in as an expert on dealing with women in city government, giving a speech that says “They’re competent, professional adults like anybody else, talk to them like grown-ups” probably won’t command much in the way of speaking fees.
It’s also worth noting that, while booking a speaker to come in and explain how to deal with ickle wittle girls who have been elected by a broad cross-section of the city to represent the interests of a dynamic assortment of neighbors within discrete communities is a pretty embarrassing thing for the city of Austin to have spent money on, Austin did elect 7 women to its 10 City Council seats.
That’s a feat that does make Austin look pretty progressive, at least compared to the city council makeup of the other large cities in the state. In Dallas, just under 2/3 of the city council is made up of men; in Houston, only two of the 16 city councillors—either by district or at-large—are women. In San Antonio, eight of the ten city councillors are fellas. Only El Paso—where five of the eight members of city council are women—comes close to matching Austin when it comes to representing women in elected city government.
So while Austin can and should be a little mortified that its city manager’s office hired a dude to come in from Florida to talk about how women are basically an alien, math-avoiding, question-haranguing species that require innovative techniques to communicate with lest disaster strike and city business grind to a halt of feeeeeelings—the city should feel good about the fact that the question of “what’s different about a city council that’s mostly comprised of women” came up at all.