Though the news often reminds us of the trailblazing women battling for the presidency in 2020, the question still remains:
Are women advancing in local government, too?
Research says not nearly quickly enough — but Jersey City Mayor Steven M. Fulop wants to change that.
“This administration has placed more emphasis on promoting women and creating equal representation than ever before in the city’s history,” Fulop said.
As Jersey City continues to be recognized for advancements toward inclusivity and equality, Fulop’s administration has increased female leadership to more than 50% across all departments, achieving a rare gender parity in executive management roles.
“In Jersey City today, women run some of the largest and most vitally important departments in the city — and that is a very good thing,” Fulop said.
It is a big deal — especially when the National Research Center said that, in data collected over the last five years from 20,000 local government workers in more than 40 jurisdictions, more men than women consistently rate their opportunities for growth and advancement as positive.
And, at the end of last year, only 18% of chief administrative officers were women, according to the International City/County Management Association — a mere 4% increase from 2014.
Fulop said he recognized the discrepancy in his own administration.
“We wanted to make sure that each department within the administration reflected the diversity of the community, and, outside of ethnicity and race, we also realized a basic deficiency in gender balance,” he said.
The administration first increased its leadership training and networking groups for women and spent the time and resources necessary to aggressively close historic gender pay gaps, especially for division directors and women in senior roles.
But the recent gender parity in his administration was not a byproduct of any one deliberate initiative to find women to fill available roles, Fulop said.
“It was simply about saying, ‘Let’s be more open and inclusive in how we encourage different people to apply for these positions,’” he added.
Fulop said that, even as the gender gap continues to narrow, he finds many women still believe they are less qualified for a job when, in fact, they are often more qualified than the men actually applying.
A 2018 study from ICMA also found that women were less likely than men to aspire for top jobs, with just 53% of women saying their career goal was to be a chief administrative officer versus 72% of men.
To combat this, Fulop said, if an applicant pool was not diverse enough, his administration often would keep a job open until it was.
“Sometimes, we would repost and solicit more resumes from the public because we just didn’t think we had a fair and reasonable pool of applicants that was gender-balanced or reflective of the diversity in the city, which spoke to a deficiency on our side, because, mathematically, we should have,” he said.
“We became more deliberate in how we wanted to search and broadly open up the hiring process, and what we ended up finding more often than not was that, for each position, the most qualified and best applicants happened to be women.”
Fulop said placing more value on having female decision-makers at the table has helped to overcome the typical occupational segregation that occurs throughout local government, with some departments often having more male than female employees.
He cited leaders such as Vivian Brady-Phillips, executive director of the Jersey City Housing Authority; Annisia Cialone, director of the Department of Housing, Economic Development and Commerce; Allison Solowsky, director of the Department of Public Works; Tanya Marione, director of the Division of City Planning; Patricia Cassidy, the first female deputy chief in the history of the Jersey City Police Department; and more as examples of women in his administration who lead historically male-dominated departments.
“In many ways, women bring different skillsets and perspectives than their male counterparts, and that has made our entire administration stronger,” he said. “The women who we currently have in leadership roles do not make rash decisions. They are thoughtful and deliberate in how they approach things in our community, and I would say they are even more service-driven and compassionate, too.”
Many appointment decisions are made by the mayor, Mark Bunbury, director of human resources, said.
“Therefore, it is essential that a municipality’s leadership encourages women to strive for these positions and are encouraged to apply,” Bunbury said. “This not only ensures representation of women across government, but also creates a culture where other women working in government believe there is access and a path forward to the highest levels of leadership in our municipality.”
Soraya Hebron, director of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion in Jersey City for nearly two years, said that working for other women leaders indeed inspired her to seek her own advancement.
“It showed me that I could have a future not just in public service, but as a leader,” Hebron said. “My favorite part about my role now is being in a position to increase business opportunities for women, people of color and others that have historically faced unique difficulty in our country, and it’s even more rewarding that I get to do this important work in the community that I grew up in.”
Hebron earned her bachelor’s degree in Africana and urban studies from the University of Pennsylvania and is working on her master’s in public policy from Rutgers University. She worked as a field manager assistant with the Fresh Air Fund in New York City, a planner assistant with the Hudson County Division of Planning, and an aide at the Jersey City Mayor’s Office prior to her current role.
She said her quick rise to the top has not been without its challenges.
“When people interact with me, they’re not just talking to a woman,” Hebron said. “They’re talking to a young, black, educated woman from Jersey City.
“I’m only 26, but Mayor Fulop saw my potential and didn’t let my age, gender or any other factor get in the way. I think it’s important for more people to follow his lead and be more open-minded about what a director may look like.”
Hebron said there are still times when she is not only the youngest in the room but also the only woman.
“But I never let that stop me from asking questions or adding my points of view to the conversation,” she said. “As a young woman in government, I think it’s important for us to make our voices heard when it comes to issues that we are passionate about.
“Always know that you belong at the table.”
Stacey Flanagan, director of health and human services for Jersey City since 2013, added how important it is for women to know their true worth.
“Your first salary dictates your progression in the workplace,” she said. “When we are all making salaries based on our education, experience, success and the number of people we directly supervise, we will have succeeded.
“I’m encouraged to see the mayor making sure we are all evenly compensated.”
Flanagan earned her bachelor’s degree in political science from Michigan State University, her master’s degree in nonprofit management from The New School, and a certificate in organizational leadership from Harvard Business School Executive Education. Though she started her career as a volunteer in the U.S. Peace Corps, Flanagan went on to become a national nonprofit program manager and the previous director of New York’s largest Women, Infants, and Children’s supplemental food and public health programs.
“Still, when I started in Jersey City, I was the only female director,” Flanagan said. “I was, and still am, outspoken, and I would often hear from former male counterparts that I shouldn’t speak too much in meetings.
“Now, I am one of many women leaders, and our male counterparts are much more supportive. It is a refreshing and important change and I thank Mayor Fulop for driving progressive leadership.”
Lucinda McLaughlin, who recently was promoted to director of the Department of Recreation and Youth Development in Jersey City, agreed that progress is being made.
“As an attorney, I have had my fair share of older male attorneys refer to me as ‘honey’ or ‘sweetheart,’” she said. “Now, working in Jersey City, I feel much more respected, which allows me to focus solely on my work.
“I’ve worked hard to show that I am capable, equipped and prepared, which carries much more weight than how your hair is styled or what clothes you are wearing.”
McLaughlin earned her bachelor’s degree in anthropology and economics from Brown University and her law degree from Seton Hall Law School before becoming an assistant prosecutor in Union County and, subsequently, an attorney in private practice.
“But I left private practice so I could be the mom I wanted to be,” she said. “I was practicing law in three different states for 15 hours a day, for what felt like seven days a week.”
McLaughlin accepted a position with Jersey City in 2016.
“After my first daughter was born, I became the director of the Jersey City Youth Counsel and had the opportunity to connect in a much deeper way than I had anticipated,” she said. “Ultimately, for me, starting a family was what helped me to recommit my community through government work.
“Being a mother helps me to see the bigger picture, especially when it comes to the investment I want my own kids to have in our community and the commitment to others I continually try to foster within them — I like to say we are building an army of responsible citizens while developing and implementing youth program and curricula, inspiring youth participation and ownership in the process to build true youth advocates who are equipped to speak up for themselves and others.”
Fulop said he could not be happier with all the work the women in his administration have done to make Jersey City a great place to be.
He also is excited for the future — both the accomplishments yet to come and the incredible women in government he has yet to meet.
“We are proud that women leaders continue to be the key decision-makers in some of the most important functions of city government,” he said.
More family-friendly government
Mark Bunbury, director of human resources in Jersey City, said Mayor Steven M. Fulop’s administration has been doing quite a lot to improve the work environment for city employees.
“For example, Mayor Fulop extended fully-paid parental leave last year, becoming one of the first municipalities in the state to do so,” he said. “In fact, both he and our city’s business administrator took parental leave to demonstrate that we are an environment in which people are supported in spending time with their new family additions.”
Jersey City also recently started offering a pre-tax flexible spending account for dependent care, allowing eligible employees to save up to 30% on the costs, and, prior to the state’s mandate, Fulop signed an ordinance mandating that most private employers, regardless of size, must provide paid sick time to their employees.
“The administration has been extremely supportive of small businesses throughout Jersey City, and, although there were initial concerns, it appears to be doing its job of ensuring people don’t have to choose between a paycheck and a sick child,” Bunbury said.
The next challenge, Bunbury added, will be to explore more viable telecommuting and flex-time options.
“As a public sector entity responsible to the people for our time and resources, we must do this in a way that creates transparency around time worked and also get the right technological resources in place to allow sufficient accountability,” Bunbury said. “Additionally, many arrangements may have to be negotiated with our largely union workforce, so there are some hurdles in this area.
“However, we are willing to face them head on as best we can to ensure we are keeping up with the needs and desires of the modern workforce.”
For information about the Jersey City’s mayor’s office, contact Communications Director and Press Secretary Kim Wallace-Scalcione at: firstname.lastname@example.org.