As Burnsville officials welcomed the city’s first female police chief this spring, Mayor Elizabeth Kautz looked around the room and saw something even more momentous taking place.
“I said, there is something unusual working here,” Kautz said. “This is the first time … a municipality and a school district all have women leading.”
In fact, the extent of female leadership in the south metro city of 61,000 goes much further than that.
At least a dozen key government and business positions in Burnsville are held by women, including the new school superintendent, the new city manager, the president of the Chamber of Commerce, the executive director of the convention and visitors bureau, the local county commissioner (who also chairs the board), five school board members and an at-large City Council member.
The phenomenon has caught the attention of local and national media, including NBC’s Today Show, which plans to air a story this week.
Despite the hoopla, however, the women say that putting them in charge is really nothing new in Burnsville.
“Burnsville’s history has always supported women,” said Dakota County Board chairwoman Liz Workman, a former Burnsville City Council member. “This is just the way we do things.”
Council Member Cara Schulz said it happened organically: “It wasn’t part of an initiative.”
One factor mentioned by several women was Kautz’s 24-year tenure as mayor, which they said has helped normalize female leadership in the community and encouraged other women to step forward.
Debra Fitzpatrick, co-director of the Center on Women, Gender and Public Policy at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, has studied women in leadership positions. When it comes to representation, she said, change usually happens incrementally until a critical mass is reached; then it occurs faster and more dramatically, she said, as seems to have happened in Burnsville.
A survey of the largest 14 metro-area suburbs showed that no other city of comparable size has as many female leaders as Burnsville; the closest were Minnetonka and Bloomington.
Kautz noted that Burnsville also boasts several women leading city departments and is represented by two female legislators and U.S. Rep. Angie Craig, who keeps her local congressional office in Burnsville.
Next year will be the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the United States, Kautz noted. “So for me it was important to elevate and amplify that … you have all these women leading,” she said.
Still facing challenges
Though there are more women holding elected office than ever, they’re still not exactly commonplace. According to a survey done this year by the League of Minnesota Cities, 145 out of 853 cities in Minnesota — about one in six — have female mayors.
But even though their numbers are rising, Fitzpatrick said, female leaders still face challenges — including the idea still held by many men and women “that leader equals male.”
Theresa Battle, the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage school district’s new superintendent, noted that while 70% of educators in the United States are women, just 30% of superintendents across the country are women; in Minnesota, that number is 16%. Female superintendents of color are even rarer, said Battle, who is black.
“I think [women] lead courageously and with compassion,” said Battle, who started July 1 and came from the St. Paul district. “What’s different is that we have a responsibility because there’s so few of us that sometimes we don’t want to make mistakes because we don’t want to be the first and then the last.”
Kautz said that some of her thoughts and words over the years have been viewed as “soft” or stereotypically feminine, such as when she suggested the name “Heart of the City” for Burnsville’s urban center, or “I Love Burnsville” as the label for the city’s celebration week. Now they use those terms all the time, she said.
Women on city councils in some other places still experience systemic sexism, Schulz said. They’re told they’re too emotional, she said, or they’re excluded from conversation.
“They will offer an idea or a suggestion which will be discounted until it’s mentioned by a [male] fellow city councilor, and then it’s great,” she said.
Last summer Schulz and Council Member Dan Gustafson brought charges of sexism against Kautz and Council Member Dan Kealey, accusing them of browbeating City Manager Heather Johnston, who subsequently resigned. Both Kautz and Kealey denied the allegations, calling them “hearsay” and “anecdotal.” Schulz said that the city has come a long way since, revamping its hiring and review processes for city staffers.
Burnsville’s female leaders said they look forward to the day when having so many women in charge no longer raises eyebrows. The city’s leaders are all smart and capable; being female is just incidental, they said.
“It’s a story when it’s no longer a story, right?” City Manager Melanie Mesko Lee said. “That’s when it’s the good news.”