Women at work: Colchester outpaces state in female leadership

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L to R: Colchester town manager Dawn Francis, selectboard chairwoman Nadine Scibek, superintendent Amy Minor, police chief Jennifer Morrison and rescue chief Amy Akerlind lead the town. (Photos by Michaela Halnon)

Town manager Dawn Francis was admittedly hesitant to be interviewed for a story about women leaders in Colchester. The angle, she opined, seemed far more suited for a story in the 1950s than in 2017.

“I’m like, ‘Why are we still talking about this?’” she asked with a knowing smirk earlier this week. “I didn’t really know [representation] was still this low.”

Three statewide organizations — the Vt. Women’s Fund, Vt. Commission on Women and Vermont Works for Women — recently funneled their collective resources into “Change The Story,” a multi-year initiative dedicated to improving women’s economic status in Vermont.

The resulting series of reports have measured female representation and leadership in a host of categories and published new or not regularly compiled data.

In some categories, women have indeed made tremendous strides: They make up 60 percent of the state’s Supreme Court justices, 50 percent of public university and college presidents and 51 percent of school board members, for example.

But this year’s numbers show Vermont women continue to enjoy disproportional representation in the vast majority of local and municipal offices. In a handful of cases, the disparities are abysmal.

Women currently account for 34 percent of municipal managers, 16 percent of selectboard chairs, 40 percent of superintendents and a meager 3 percent of police chiefs, statewide.

Remarkably, female Colchester employees are counted in each of those categories. The unique circumstance is not currently replicated anywhere else in the state.

Add to that list Amy Akerlind — Colchester’s rescue chief. The job is not among the figures in CTS’ report. In fact, few sources of reliable data on Vermont rescue chiefs exist at all, likely because many are volunteers and often serve double duty as fire chief in their respective towns.

Save for Akerlind, who took the helm of her organization in the early 2000s, and superintendent of schools Amy Minor, who was promoted in 2016, this assemblage of women inherited their respective top spots within months of one another.

In a 2013 edition of the Sun, Colchester resident Inge Schaefer offered an observation on the changing of the guard.

“As we celebrate our 250th anniversary of becoming a town — having been predominately managed by men — one wonders if leadership styles and approaches will change,” she wrote. “Will these women be more daring and creative in their ideas and proposals? Will they aggressively move the town forward, and what will ‘forward’ mean to them, and for us?”

More than four years later, each woman interviewed for this story said this was constantly on her mind — and that the objective had absolutely nothing to do with their gender.

“I don’t perceive it,” police chief Jennifer Morrison said. “I just charge ahead, doing what I do best.”

From left to right, women as a statewide percentage of: police chiefs, superintendents, selectboard chairs and town managers. 2017 data courtesy of the Change The Story VT project.

AT THE STATION

Soon after her swearing in as Colchester Police Department’s highest ranking member in 2013 (just the third chief in CPD’s 50 year history), a resident approached Chief Morrison in the grocery store, two young daughters in tow.

“This is the woman I told you about,” Morrison remembers the woman saying tearfully. “This is our police chief — and she’s a woman!”

Still struck by event, Morrison said she was overwhelmed by the woman’s emotion as she introduced her daughters to one of only two female police chiefs in the entire state. The other, Lianne Tuomey, heads the University of Vermont police force.

“I’ve come to appreciate how impactful and meaningful it is for other women in the community,” Morrison said. “For me, it’s just who I am. I’m just Jen.”

Morrison was hired by Burlington Police Department at age 22, a fresh degree from George Washington University in hand. A journalism-criminal justice double major, she had designs on being a federal agent and was ready to get some “street smarts.”

A handful of friends were involved in law enforcement, but police officers did not populate Morrison’s immediate family. Her father was proud, her mother terrified, when their daughter announced she planned to give the career a go.

The chief said she was lucky — a few women had paved the way before her when she started at BPD. Among the cohort with whom she worked most closely, though, Morrison was seriously outnumbered.

“I never considered my gender to be an oddity, because I was always just one of the guys,” Morrison said. “As I have risen in rank, I understand that my gender is an oddity.”

The statistically unusual circumstance is felt more in some settings than in others, Morrison said. Just last week, she attended a vendor fair for police equipment and noticed some sellers addressed her male subordinates without glancing her way.

More than once, a disgruntled civilian has demanded to speak to her chief — a stereotypical mix-up she relishes.

Over her two decades in Burlington, Morrison said the environment grew exponentially more inclusive. For part of that tenure, she raised her own daughters as a single mother while earning a graduate degree on the side.

On call as a detective, Morrison relied on a supportive network of neighbors who often offered to plop on her couch as she rushed out the door to respond to a call in the dead of night, kids sleeping soundly in the next room.

She said she knows many women (and men) who left policing, however, because they were unable or unwilling to partake in the juggling act.

The challenge remains omnipresent today, especially in recruiting. Despite her prominent role as a female chief  — she also serves as the first woman president of the Vermont Association of Chiefs of Police — Morrison counts only one female officer among her sworn employees at CPD.

“If anyone should be able to recruit female police officers it should be me, right?” Morrison asked, frustration detectable in her voice. “Apparently this is not a career of interest to a lot of young women.”

ON THE AMBULANCE 

Further down Blakely Road, Chief Akerlind credits her rescue team’s near-even gender balance to a more common interest in medicine among the female population.

Akerlind first took over as a volunteer chief herself in 2005. Her predecessor was male, but the prior leader was also a woman, she said.

Until recently, her paid staff was made up of all women. And on the morning of Halloween this year, the entire on-call crew was female — not an uncommon occurrence for the Colchester group.

The all-women team has received more than a few raised eyebrows when they arrive on scene, Akerlind said, but any questions are assuaged pretty quickly.

“They [say], ‘Well, are you sure you can do this?’” Akerlind said, breaking into a grin. “Yeah, we’ve got it.”

IN THE CLASSROOM

Colchester School District Superintendent Amy Minor is in good company: Four of her five building principals are female, along with four of her six assistant principals. So, with a relatively significant percentage of state superintendent roles held by women, Minor said it’s her age that sets her apart most distinctly from her peers.

In fact, it was one of the key factors she weighed when deciding whether to apply for her position at all in 2015. Once a teacher at Colchester High School, Minor has quickly risen through the ranks, most recently serving as the CHS principal.

The mother of a kindergartener and third-grader, Minor said she encounters the same balancing act most parents do. But on top of remembering the camera for her kid’s soccer game and plugging through the workday, she tries to squeeze in appearances at high school track meets and middle school parent nights.

“You want to do everything in your life as well as you possibly can,” Minor said. “I try to balance being there for my own two kids, but at the same time … I feel like it’s my responsibility to be there for our kids.”

The conflict between professional success and familial responsibility keeps many women from applying for leadership positions until a much older age, Minor believes.

“I’m passionate about my own children, but I’m also passionate about my job,” Minor said. “The challenge for women is we don’t want to give either of those up.”

It’s especially important for her to model parental roles that break traditional gender stereotypes and demonstrate female leadership to her daughters and adolescent charges, alike.

“If you’re female in this school district, you have lots of opportunities to see women do whatever it is that they want to do,” Minor said.

DURING THE MEETING

The series of public hearings on the plowing policy for private roads turned contentious at times this fall. As numerous long meetings lasted well into the night, frequent refrains became quickly recognizable.

One repeated phrase was selectboard chairwoman Nadine Scibek’s offer of a brownie or cookie to sometimes-emotional residents, the baked goods situated appealingly on a table at the front of the auditorium.

Famous among town hall visitors, many don’t know it’s often Scibek’s husband who whips up the sugary concoctions. Still, Scibek said the strategy is all her own.

Appointed to her first term after a board vacancy and named chairwoman shortly thereafter in 2013, the full-time lawyer quickly learned a small snack and encouraging grin can go a long way.

Her first foray into town government came amid upheaval in her professional and personal life. She’d recently left a law firm and started her own landlord-tenant practice in Burlington and was quite pregnant with her second child when she joined Fire District No. 2’s Prudential Committee.

She stayed for more than a decade, often using the small stipend to pay for a babysitter during meetings. Since joining the selectboard, she’s never had a contested race on Town Meeting Day. Scibek doesn’t use Facebook and has yet to order a campaign sign.

One other female selectboard member, Jacki Murphy, joins Scibek, making a near even gender split on the panel. Elsewhere, elected representation is not similarly divided. Just one school board member and a single town representative to Montpelier are women.

“It’s a big time commitment,” Scibek said, recalling days when her children would come play on her office floor after school let out and before she headed to an evening meeting.

“To be honest, I’m not sure I would have been a town manager when my kids were little,” town manager Francis said. “And I’m not sure why I feel that way.”

Francis’ first hire – the new police chief – was a doozy. Deviating from the expected choices, she recommended the board hire a candidate from outside the department, passing over two internal applicants.

She knew the move would be controversial, but Francis said she was shocked when she received two separate voicemails from anonymous male residents accusing her of basing the decision on a hidden personal gender agenda.

“We look for the most qualified candidate,” Scibek said. “It’s unfortunate that in some segments of the population, they don’t.”

On Monday, Francis and Scibek’s reflections on the start of their tenure in Colchester were interrupted by calls from Green Mountain Power, working to get a handle on cleanup after a windstorm rocked the region. Francis calmly served as the go-between, relaying messages to her staff back at town hall.

Eight of the 12 department heads Francis supervises in Colchester are women, a landscape vastly different from the environment Francis worked in at the beginning of her local government career. She remembers being asked in job interviews what her husband did for work and if she had a family.

“There was definitely a gender imbalance,” Francis said. “I was typically the only female in the room … it’s just how it was.”

Both at the height of their careers, Scibek wondered if she and Francis are more sheltered from the current climate of sexist hiring because of their leadership positions. The slights are subtle now, Francis agreed — like a caller asking to speak with the town manager when she answers the phone.

“We’re in it,” Scibek said. “We’re not being rejected because we’re female, and we’re able to obtain positions because of our own merit. … We’re fortunate enough to have been able to prove ourselves.”