TAMPA — Soon after taking over as Tampa city attorney, Julia Mandell attended her first meeting of Mayor Bob Buckhorn's senior staff. She instinctively moved to sit along the wall of the mayor's conference room rather than at the table.
“And I was called back,” Mandell said last week, sitting in her office atop Old City Hall. “I was told, 'Get to the table.' There was no belief that I shouldn't be sitting there.”
In that exchange, Mandell sees a metaphor for the way women are taking a larger role in running government agencies in the Tampa region.
“The more women that are sitting at the table as opposed to sitting behind the table, the more they feel comfortable giving out their ideas and their thoughts,” Mandell said. “And the more they give out their ideas and their thoughts, whatever decision gets made is made with a much more diverse perspective.”
Forty years ago, Betty Castor, Jan Platt and the late Phyllis Busansky broke into the men-only political ranks of Tampa and Hillsborough County. Today, women hold prominent spots in the region's public sphere, including seats on the city council and county commission, top spots at the University of South Florida and the leadership of the Hillsborough County school district.
But they still have far to go, said Pam Iorio, Tampa's second female elected mayor and Buckhorn's predecessor.
“If you're looking for someone who has already had that executive experience, bear in mind that there are still a relatively small number of women in those positions around the country,” Iorio said. “That limits your pool.”
Building up that pool of talent is a multigenerational project that began decades ago and remains unfinished. A review of public salaries across Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties shows that:
Women make up a little less than 40 percent of the region's local-government workforce. Tampa ranks at the bottom. Twenty-seven percent of its public employees are female — the same percentage as when Iorio was mayor. Women are half of Pinellas County's local-government workforce, by comparison.
Across the region, women fill about one-third of jobs with the six-figure salaries that come with upper management. In Tampa, less than a quarter do — the lowest rate among comparable area governments.
Though Tampa's female employees make more, on average, than their counterparts elsewhere in the region, their median wage, $46,758, still falls about 6 percent short of those of their male colleagues. The highest male-female wage gap is in Pasco County, where men average nearly $8,000 more a year.
Women are making inroads in elected office, but the ranks of appointed and career municipal employees remain behind the demographic curve, said University of South Florida professor Susan MacManus, who studies women's roles in government.
There are several reasons for that, she said. Many of the current career civil service workers came on when women still effectively were shut out of jobs such as firefighting, policing and utilities. In cities like Tampa, the bulk of municipal operations involve those traditionally male-dominated professions, and women historically have been discouraged from going into government work in favor of better-paying private sector jobs.
That's all changing, MacManus said.
“Today, not having women is a political liability,” she said. “It's expected that representative bodies look representative.”
Women now make up a majority of college enrollment across the country, giving them opportunities in politics and education they might have passed up decades ago, MacManus said. They're moving into careers they previously shunned, including public administration, she said.
A study released last week by the Pew Research Center found that the wage gap is closing for women and men in their 20s and 30s. Asked whether they could see themselves as bosses one day, 61 percent of young women said “yes.” Older women were less certain.
“We know at the starting gates, everything's pretty level between women and men,” said Mary Guy, a professor of public administration at the University of Colorado-Denver. “Now we're watching to see what proportion of women in middle management move up. There's still a glass ceiling; it's just not as obvious.”
Tampa Mayor Buckhorn seemed surprised to learn last week that his administration has the same proportion of women as Iorio had. Since taking office in 2011, he has hired or promoted women for some of the most prominent and well-paid positions at City Hall.
With Mandell stepping up last month, three of the city's top five salaries go to women. Finance Director Sonya Little is the city's highest-paid employee. Police Chief Jane Castor also ranks in the top five.
Buckhorn's most recent hires — grant writer, housing director and internal auditor — are all women. Women are doing much of the heavy lifting to put into place Buckhorn's InVision project, aimed at remaking the city's urban core.
“If you think about it, the most powerful — almost without exception — positions in city government are largely held by women,” Buckhorn said. “I think women bring to the table a perspective that I may not have. For me, that's a good thing.”
But Buckhorn's inner circle is still 60 percent male. The police force is 72 percent male. Tampa Fire Rescue is 90 percent male. Public works is 85 percent male.
“Historically, those have not been jobs that women have trended toward by choice,” Buckhorn said. “That is a reflection of the work.”
He's quick to note that there's nothing keeping women from seeking those jobs.
“In police and fire, there are not barriers whatsoever,” he said. “Folks choose different paths, but the doors are open.”
In St. Petersburg, Mayor-elect Rick Kriseman chose women for three of his first appointments: deputy mayor, urban affairs director and legislative affairs director.
“When I was looking for someone to fill those different positions, I wasn't necessarily looking at their sex, their race, any of those elements,” Kriseman said. “It just happens in this case that they're women. Two of them are African-American women, and they're younger. I kind of look at it as I got the icing on the cake with them.”
Outgoing Mayor Bill Foster had only one woman, longtime City Administrator Patricia Elston, among the highest-paid city employees last year, according to salary data.
Across the region, you're still more likely to find that women dominate clerical jobs, though they also dominate legal staffs and social service agencies.
The glass ceiling is less obvious, Guy said. “But we still have glass walls.”
Police Chief Castor climbed over one of those walls 30 years ago when she joined the department as a patrol officer. It's getting easier for women to move into law enforcement, she said, but the pace is still slow.
“It's a gradual increase as opposed to a flood of women coming in,” Castor said.
More than their male colleagues, women in the police force must deal with the fact that a promotion often means returning to the night shift in their new position. For those with children, that can be a tough choice.
“In a lot of cases, women will feel they have to make that decision about a promotion or family,” Castor said.
When Castor started with the department in 1984, it had no female leaders. Today, it has a female major, a female captain and three female lieutenants. Most of them have been put in their positions by Castor.
“Women promoting women is a relatively new phenomenon,” MacManus said.
The lack of women in middle management means women take longer than men to move into those higher echelons. But once they're there, they bring a different style of leadership to a city or county, professor Guy said.
“There's not as much reliance on hierarchy and doing what the manager says,” Guy said. “Women don't form football teams.”
Pasco County Administrator Michele Baker cited her own transition as an example.
She took over this year from longtime Administrator John Gallagher, who could be a gruff, top-down manager, she said.
“I am much more collaborative in my leadership style,” she said. “Some of that is natural preference, and some of it is derived from my days as an emergency manager.”
Heather Grimes, one of Baker's new assistant administrators, said Baker is attuned to the needs of county workers — a trait she showed when she was Gallagher's second in command.
“She was able to do some quick, wave-of-the-wand, let's-do-this changes,” Grimes said. “She really cares. Not to say that John didn't, but that's the biggest change I've seen.”
Buckhorn said the number of women on his senior staff is less important than the number coming up below them. Those are the women who have the potential to influence the city long after his administration has moved on, he said.
“If you look at building that bench, it's been almost all women,” he said. “If I'm going to bring someone in, I want them to grow in the pay scale.”
Buckhorn promoted Mandell, 43, a longtime assistant city attorney, to replace former City Attorney Jim Shimberg, who resigned this year.
“I thought is was important at the end of the day that I demonstrate to our employees that there is upward mobility,” Buckhorn said.
Mandell said she was surprised to get the call from the mayor. She joined Little, Castor and Public Affairs Director Ali Glisson on Buckhorn's nine-member senior staff.
“He could have found a fourth white male to fill that chair,” said Mandell, who has worked under three male city attorneys. “When Sonya or I or Chief Castor are advising or just giving our thoughts, we do bring a different perspective to the table.”
Buckhorn, who cut his political teeth 30 years ago under Tampa's first female mayor, Sandy Freedman, said he welcomes that perspective. He wants his administration to reflect the community as a whole “in all its ethnicities and shades,” he said.
“For me, personally, as the father of two daughters, if I'm not doing what I can to empower women so there are role models for them, shame on me,” Buckhorn said. “Part of my job as a father and as a mayor is to knock down those walls.”
Which brings us back to Mandell and her spot at the mayor's conference table. She sits next to Buckhorn in the same seat Shimberg occupied before her.
“It's the sitting at the table and coming to terms with the idea that you belong there,” Mandell said. “When you have more women in leadership roles, the other women don't question that. Then they can fully participate and become fully involved in the conversation of business or government or whatever.”