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Public realm accepts, embraces female leadership

When Brighton Supervisor Sandra Frankel first ran for the position in 1991, no woman had ever been supervisor in the town’s 177-year history.
 
"When I first ran for town supervisor, going door to door, talking to residents, a question that came up from time to time was ‘Can a woman really do this job?’" Frankel says. "My response was if Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher can run countries, surely a woman can run the town of Brighton."
 
Frankel says that question represents a stereotype that is no longer common. But she does see limited representation of women in other town supervisor positions in the area.
 
Women, however, hold many of the county’s top positions, following in the hallowed footsteps of barrier breakers like Susan B. Anthony, finding that the public sector is friendlier than in years past. Maggie Brooks and Cheryl Dinolfo have been county executive and county clerk in Monroe County since 2004. Lovely Warren currently serves as president of Rochester’s City Council, and Sandra Doorley recently was elected district attorney.
 
"I think that in the Greater Rochester area women have risen to higher office effectively and the environment has been accepting," Warren says.
 
Doorley agrees, saying she finds that the voters in Monroe County look more at the quality of their leaders and less at their gender.
 
"I really think the people in this county vote for the best person for the position," she says. "It is not necessarily, ‘We are going to vote for a woman over a man.’ You vote for the most qualified people."
 
In larger arenas, it appears there still are gains to be made. Only 21.2 percent of New York State legislators are women, according to statistics from the National Conference of State Legislatures.
 
Still, numbers at the state level have improved from when Frankel was first elected. In 1991, the average representation of female state legislators nationwide was just 18 percent, according to information from the Center for American Women and Progress at Rutgers University.
 
"I think you are seeing women who have worked in the trenches for many years emerging in leadership roles. I think that is a recognition of their work ethic, their ideas, their style of leadership, their collaborative spirit," Brooks says.
 
Brooks also broke a barrier when she was the first woman elected to the county executive position. But she says she has never regarded her leadership as something much affected by her gender.
 
"I have never stopped and thought, ‘Is it different because I am a woman?’ I think about my impact on county government, I think about my impact as an individual on county government, and I do believe there are some things that are different because of who I am, not because of a male or female dynamic," she says.
 
Doorley concurs, saying she wants to be judged by the quality of her work and not according to demographic characteristics.
 
"I am hoping that people look at me and look at the job I am doing and their opinions on my work, my work ethic and what I have done for my community and do not judge me any differently because I am a woman," she says. "I do not want there to be a double standard. Judge me on what I do."
 
For Warren, the influence of strong female leaders when she was growing up helped to shape her own life. She says these mentors helped her understand how to put people first.
 
"I have always seen women as being leaders and being the driving force behind a lot of initiatives. I think that in the African-American community, especially the women have been more so the matriarchs, the decisionmakers as far as the family was concerned," she says. "I have grown up in an environment where women have been strong leaders."
 
Warren recommends that women aspiring to leadership positions find mentors who can groom them and give them constructive criticism. Frankel also thinks it is vital that women help each other to gain experience.
 
"I think it is critically important that women who are in leadership roles in politics and in government mentor other women who have an interest, because that helps," Frankel says. "Mentorship in the corporate world is clearly an asset as people progress in their careers, and the same holds in politics."
 
She stresses that the decision to run for public office is dependent on many factors. But as more responsibilities in the home are shared, Frankel has found that women have more time to contemplate the issues and to consider throwing their hats in the ring.
 
Doorley, who has balanced a wedding and the births of two children with the demands of working in the District Attorney’s Office, says she has found the public sector flexible and has been able to maintain a good balance between work and family life.
 
For the next crop of women leaders, there still are strides to be made. Less than 17 percent of Congress is female, the Center for American Women and Politics notes.
 
"In a time of shrinking resources and a lot of challenge, quite frankly, in the public sector, I think people who can come to the table with creative ideas and out-of-the-box thinking are the kinds of people that are really needed in today’s environment. I think women more and more often are representing those qualities," Brooks says.
 
She says she sees the increasing numbers of female leaders as an evolution and believes they need to keep their eyes on the future to succeed.
 
"There will always be challenges unique to women. Some of those change over time. I am a big believer that we have to live for the moment and that we have to look forward and not back. We cannot continue to fight the same battles," Brooks says. "And so I think we need to build on our strengths."                                  

Christine Loman is a freelance writer and a former Rochester Business Journal intern.

1/6/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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