Women Mayors on #MeToo: 'We Have a Responsibility'

At the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting this week, a panel of female mayors gathered to discuss the movement's impact on them and the way they lead their communities.
by | January 26, 2018
"We have a responsibility to share our stories," said Oakland, Calif., Mayor Libby Schaaf at the U.S. Conference of Mayors conference. (TNS\Francine Orr)

For Salt Lake City’s mayor, coming out during the 1990s as an openly gay politician in a deeply conservative state required some guts. But that, she says today, was still easier to do than to publicly talk about being raped while she was in college.

What changed Jackie Biskupski’s mind about doing so was the #MeToo movement. “I was empowered to speak on the steps of our Capitol and make it known I am a survivor,” she said. “The people in my community -- especially the young women -- received [my story] in such a tremendous fashion and really enabled me to become a better leader.”

Biskupski’s comments came during a session about the movement, which has encouraged scores of women to share their stories of sexual harassment and abuse, at the U.S. Conference of Mayor’s winter meeting in Washington, D.C.

The mayors on the panel said the movement also awakened them to a very specific duty as female leaders. “We have a responsibility to share our stories,” said Oakland, Calif., Mayor Libby Schaaf. “Because we are in a place of power, we get believed when so many women before us have not had that privilege.”

Her comments came on the same day that former U.S.A. Gymnastics and Michigan State University physician Larry Nassar was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison for multiple sex crimes spanning decades against young women and children. The woman whose case started the suit, Rachael Denhollander, learned that she wasn't the first to complain to Nassar's office about his behavior. Four other women and girls had done so before her, and none were believed.

Since the #MeToo movement began last year, scores of state and local governments have reacted by investigating their own processes for filing complaints and reviewing sexual harassment training. But the mayors on panel said leaders need to do a deeper dive and consider how more subtle policies have contributed to what can be a toxic culture for women.

For example, said Schaaf, a new law just went into effect in California this year that bans employers from asking prospective hires about their salary history. The goal is to narrow the gender pay gap. If a new employer bases a woman’s pay on her prior salary, the bill’s supporters reasoned, gender discrimination is perpetuated.

Another important aspect is making sure city leadership reflects the community, said Tacoma, Wash., Mayor Victoria Woodard. Woodard, who helped create the Office of Equity and Human Rights during her time on the city council, noted that Tacoma hired its first female city manager only just last year.

In Salt Lake, Biskupski echoed Woodard's comments.

The city has investigated its law enforcement practices in the wake of national outrage over police shootings of minorities across the country, including in Salt Lake City. In examining the application process for prospective law enforcement officers, she said, the city found that “there was so much bias on every level that it worked against [not just minorities but women too]."

The process of reviewing long-held practices with the aim of changing a culture is delicate work. Schaaf, perhaps, knows that better than most. During her first term, the Oakland Police Department erupted in a sex scandal in which top department officials covered up the fact that multiple officers were having sex with a teenager. Schaaf publicly blasted the department, comparing it to a frat house.

“That spoke to what was a toxic, macho culture,” Schaaf said at the mayors’ conference. But, she added, healing that culture means including everybody. “We’re not going to succeed if we vilify people,” she said. “We have to say, ‘We need you at the table too.’”