Thursday, February 01, 2007

Women On Top

I went to my first Women's Dialogue tonight, hosted by Controller Laura Chick. The topic was "Women at the Top" and featured five top female department heads for the City of Los Angeles:

· Cecilia Estolano, Chief Executive Officer, Community Redevelopment Agency
· Gail Goldberg, Director of Planning, Department of City Planning
· Gloria Jeff, General Manager, Department of Transportation
· Lydia Kennard, Executive Director, Los Angeles World Airports
· Karen Sisson, Chief Administrative Officer

The panel discussion was held in City Council Chambers - one of my favorite places - and the room was filled to capacity with women of every age, shape, and race. Chick, a former City Councilmember, facilitated the dialogue about how these remarkable women ended up where they are today and what lessons they could share with the audience.

I've met Cecilia Estolano in the past, but the rest of the women I only know by reputation, like most other Angelenos (okay, those who read the paper, at least.) My favorite answer from Estolano was in regards to a quality that helped her end up where she is today. "Integrity," she responded. If you've met her, you know this is true. She's forthright and fair, and she was an awesome pick to head CRA.

Interestingly, Lydia Kennard's last day at LAWA is tomorrow, and she was very candid in her answers to the questions. For instance, in discussing her work at LAWA, she at one point said her clients were the airlines. I immediately turned to the friend with whom I was sitting and hissed, "That says a lot about how she did her job. She's a City employee - her clients are us, not the airlines." Less than five seconds later, Chick gently but firmly took Kennard to task, saying essentially the exact same thing: the local government's clients are the people of the City.

Other questions ranged from what the panelists like least about their jobs, whether they had mentors, and whether they were Girl Scouts. (That last question was from a group of three adorable Girl Scouts in the audience, who also recited the Girl Scout Promise for the crowd.) I was most consistently impressed with answers from Gail Goldberg and Gloria Jeff, both of whom are recent appointees from outside of Los Angeles; Goldberg was the Planning Director for San Diego and Jeff was the Director of the Michigan Department of Transportation. They were very different in temperament, but similar in their focus on doing their jobs well and a passion for working for the City.

Goldberg told the story of how she ended up a planner: she was a housewife whose husband died suddenly at age 40. She was raising two kids, age 9 and 14, and decided to "invest in herself" for the next five years, going to UCSD to study economics before changing her major to planning. She began work for the City of San Diego as "the oldest junior planner in the department" and says one of her traits that she saw as a liability - her age - ended up benefiting her, as she earned respect due to her maturity. She copped to being a liberal, enjoying politics, and holding a naive belief before she came here that Los Angeles couldn't be that much bigger or more difficult to navigate than San Diego. (She says she learned her lesson quickly.) A woman from South Los Angeles stood up and said how thrilled her community was that Goldberg had visited and asked when she would return. She responded that she had promised to return in six months with an update on the tasks the residents had given her and would be back in April. The woman was wonderful, down-to-earth and intelligent.

Jeff was equally brainy, but more assertive. She earned a big laugh when she said that one of the things she's learned about herself is that she needs to have "more patience with fools." She believes in getting things done and working with whoever it takes to make things happen, but she's obviously not the kind of woman who takes shit from anyone. She told us how she had held a position where some of the men who worked for her resented having a supervisor who "looked like her" (she's an African-American woman.) These men printed up special toilet covers with her face on them, along with "the words saying what should be done to [her]." The audience gasped, but she wasn't done. Not only did she stay in that job, despite the fact that no one was punished for this behavior, but later on, she left and returned not as their supervisor, but as the head of the entire department. The lady is tough! I also loved that she talked about transportation as an integrated part of planning and the importance of public transportation.

Karen Sisson was a bit quieter than the rest of the panel, but her wonkiness when it comes to technology and process could serve the City very well if she accomplishes her goal of streamlining applications across departments and making the City paperless.

It was worth driving downtown for this and I applaud Chick for hosting these events, and her Director of Government and Community Affairs, Miriam Jaffe, for putting so much work into them. She does an amazing job, and by the way, she does not age. The woman is a stunner and she's looked the same since the day I met her nearly ten years ago. The only thing that changes is her hair, and it looks fantastic.

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