Twenty-two years ago, a local lawmaker and graduate of the Yale School of Architecture ran for the Connecticut state senate in New Haven, seeking to unseat an incumbent whose roots in the district were as deep as his political resume was long.
The incumbent was a native of the Elm City, a longtime alder and a board member of the Greater New Haven NAACP — and a man. The challenger, Toni Harp, faced an uphill battle, made steeper by what she now recalls as overtly sexist attacks on her candidacy.
“When I first ran for the senate seat, there were men at some of the polling places with bull horns saying ‘you don’t want to have a woman represent you; she won’t do a good job because men won’t listen to her,’” Harp said last week.
She went on to win that seat, and held it for 21 years, ultimately controlling Connecticut’s purse strings as co-chair of the appropriations committee. When she ran for mayor of New Haven last fall, she bested six men to win the office, overcoming “some who doubted a woman could be a good mayor,” she said.
Harp is New Haven’s first-ever female mayor. But the city she leads is still largely run by men.
Of the roughly 1,300 full-time city employees included in biennial human resources reports, more than 70 percent of them are men, according to the most recent reports analyzed by the News. The gap has scarcely changed in half a decade.
This imbalance puts the city’s workforce out of sync with the demographics of the labor market, the city acknowledges in the reports, which are filed every two years with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. As justification, human resources officials cite difficulty recruiting female public safety personnel.
The disparity is most acute in the fire department, where fewer than 10 female firefighters serve alongside several hundred men, Harp said.
Allyn Wright, the city’s new fire chief — whom Harp appointed this spring — said more should be done to educate the public about the accessibility of public safety jobs. One day, he said, he would like to see a woman assume his role as chief.
When it comes to top managers and officials, data shows that the city has in fact made some strides. In 2009, men outnumbered women in this category almost two to one. Four years later, according to the most recent report, men fill 81 of the city’s managerial positions, while women hold the other 53, a slight improvement.
Harp said she has done a “pretty good job” cultivating a diverse workforce — at least a “better job than the previous administration.”
Since taking office, she has appointed a slate of women to top city positions, still dwarfed by the number of men she has asked to work for her. The highest-paying jobs — corporation counsel, police chief, chief administrative officer, and housing and neighborhood development administrator — are all held by men.
Senior staff is more diverse along racial and ethnic lines than along gender lines. When it comes to the mayor’s two top aides, her chief of staff and chief administrative officer, one is Hispanic and one is black, but both are men.
The women whom Harp has tapped to lead city departments do not manage public safety, the budget or legal affairs but rather community services, elderly services and the public library. Harp said this is because women have a particular knack for community and social service work.
“What I see is that women do things slightly differently,” she said. “We are a little bit more sensitive to the needs of our elderly population and our children, we think about not just economic development but the development of communities and opportunities to interact with each other.”
While the problem of gender inequity in politics is a national one, local governments can be laboratories for broader change, said Patricia Russo, executive director of the Women’s Campaign School at Yale, an independent nonprofit run through the Law School.
Kelly Murphy, former economic development administrator who left the city when John DeStefano Jr. left the mayor’s office at the end of last year, said local government can be a pipeline to higher office.
“How are you going to recruit a female head of transportation on a state or national level if you don’t have women with 20 years of experience on a local level to move up?” she said.
Mentorship is one important factor, Murphy said. She herself came to New Haven from Michael Bloomberg’s administration in New York City. She added that professional mentorship is significant, but so are examples in one’s private life: Both her parents are biochemists.
Slowly, Murphy said, young women are beginning to see the opportunities that lie before them. “50 years ago women were teachers and nurses because that’s what they saw,” she said.
“Girls in New Haven look up and see that [Harp] is mayor. That matters,” Murphy said.
In fact New Haven has a clutch of prominent female leaders, Russo said, citing U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro as a leading example.
In several cases, the women Harp appointed already had positions of considerable influence, either in New Haven or elsewhere in the country. Jackie James, a deputy in economic development, was a longtime alder and chair of the city’s Democratic Town Committee.
Harp’s highest-profile and highest-paid female appointee — Martha Okafor to the $125,000-a-year directorship of the multi-agency Community Services Administration — said she sees gender parity not only as an equality issue but also as a practical matter of harnessing talent.
Andrea Jackson-Brooks, DeStefano’s chief of staff in the 1990s and now a city alder, said she has seen women’s footprint in City Hall grow since the time she managed the mayor’s staff. Okafor, who came to New Haven from a public health job in Georgia, said she trusts the mayor will address whatever imbalances still persist.
Russo agreed, tracing Harp’s commitment to gender equity back to her work as a state senator on the appropriations committee, when she preserved funding for the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women.
“Mayor Harp has lived this issue,” Russo said.