Austin council members fuming about city-led training session on women

The seven women of the Austin City Council stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the City Hall atrium on Wednesday, fuming about a training session the city quietly held in March on how to deal with the city’s first female-majority council.

Facing a bank of TV cameras and reporters, the council members said they were shocked and dismayed to read an American-Statesman report about a training session for staffers that included broad generalizations of female leaders.

“The characterization of women as not having an interest in financial arguments, asking too many questions and requiring different interactions than men is unacceptable,” said Council Member Delia Garza. “Our community is beyond the archaic rhetoric used in this training.”

After the Statesman broke the story Tuesday evening on its City Blog, having received a tip about the “Women Leading in Government” training session held March 27, backlash was swift and voluminous. Dozens of Austinites responded on social media, saying they were offended by the trainers’ comments and calling for City Manager Marc Ott to resign. A special hashtag called #whatwomenask was created on Twitter to collect comments and reaction.

The story attracted national attention Wednesday, with media outlets such as the Huffington Post, Fast Company, Slate, Jezebel and the Associated Press documenting the city’s training session, often with humorous headlines such as “Warning Austin: Your Female City Councilors Will Talk a Lot, Hate Math.”

Ott said he didn’t agree with the statements made during the training session. The city announced it would remove the video from its website Wednesday evening because “the training’s content was not consistent with the City’s culture, philosophy or management approach.”

“I am offended and embarrassed by what I saw in the video,” Ott said. “This training should have been fully vetted to ensure it was consistent with our values, and that didn’t happen.”

Those comments came in contrast to a statement city spokesman David Green gave the Statesman on Tuesday calling the event “successful” and valuable because it exposed the workforce to “insights of leaders with fresh perspectives on familiar issues.”

The two speakers who were brought in from Florida — a city manager named Jonathan K. Allen and a business development consultant named Miya Burt-Stewart — released a joint statement late Wednesday. They accused the Statesman of taking their comments out of context, and said their presentation was intended to help city staffers adjust their communication and management styles, not to diminish or minimize women.

They said they are “saddened” by the negative reaction to what was a “positive group discussion.” They also apologized for any miscommunication if the “overall intent and message was not clear.”

The city says it didn’t pay the travel costs or a speaker’s fee for Allen and Burt-Stewart, only paying $458 in hotel costs for Allen.

Much of the online criticism has focused on Allen, who at the time was a city manager from Lauderdale Lakes, Fla. In video from the training session, Allen said his experience dealing with an all-female city commission taught him that women ask a lot of questions, even if the answers are already in the agenda packet, and they might not be as swayed by financial arguments, preferring to hear about how a given decision affects a community or neighborhood.

A couple of weeks after Allen’s presentation, a split commission in Lauderdale Lakes voted to fire him over issues related to his vision for the city, Vice Mayor Beverly Williams told the Statesman. She wasn’t aware of Allen’s comments in Austin until Wednesday, but she took issue with his characterizations of female officials, saying she thoroughly read agenda items before meetings. “I question anything that deals with finances,” she said, noting the South Florida city was on the brink of bankruptcy a couple of years ago, before she took office.

Williams was dismayed by the sweep of Allen’s comments on women. “That’s kind of upsetting,” she said. “That’s sexist.”

Ott said he took “full responsibility” for the training, which was organized by Assistant City Manager Anthony Snipes.

“I don’t think anybody anticipated that the presenter would focus their comments on and single out women as though we needed to do something different,” Ott said.

In the video of the March 27 training session, however, Snipes introduced the two speakers and said he had an opportunity to hear Allen “do this presentation” already.

Ott said he thought the training was about the historic transition to the new 10-1 City Council and was “an intent to have a conversation about how to embrace change.” An invitation was extended to several of the city’s “affinity groups” for minorities and women to attend the event, but council members said they were unaware it was happening. The audience shown in the video appeared to be predominantly women.

“You would think that a training session on how to deal with women council members would include the women council members as part of that discussion and training,” Council Member Sheri Gallo said.

Vanessa Sarria, a member of Mayor Steve Adler’s staff, said she attended the training because she thought it was leadership training for women, not training on dealing with female leaders. She said she has experienced plenty of leadership training, and discounted these presenters because they weren’t using “evidence-based practices or using any recent research.”

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