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Is Fresno run by ‘mediocre white guys’? Some think so. Here’s what numbers show

Female fire chief hopes to inspire more women to become firefighters

Fresno Fire Department Chief Kerri Donis can count fellow female firefighters in her department on one hand. She hopes to grow that number with Fresno Fire’s first inaugural Girls Empowerment Camp on April 27, 2019 in Fresno.
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Fresno Fire Department Chief Kerri Donis can count fellow female firefighters in her department on one hand. She hopes to grow that number with Fresno Fire’s first inaugural Girls Empowerment Camp on April 27, 2019 in Fresno.

Women employees in the city of Fresno are outnumbered three to one by their male counterparts. Are city leaders concerned about that?

Data obtained by The Bee through a public records request shows out of 3,370 employees who work for the city, 75 percent are men.

Fresno’s largest departments are police and fire, traditionally male-dominated fields. Fresno Fire Department has just six women firefighters, including the chief. And the police department is 76 percent male. Other departments, such as public utilities and public works, are more than 80 percent male.

In the city’s leadership ranks, two-thirds of department heads are men, and half are white men. The one woman of color leading a department is City Clerk Yvonne Spence, who is black. The city clerk’s office is the smallest department, with six employees total.

Kathryn Forbes, the Fresno State Women’s Studies Program coordinator, said, in general, just because women are in leadership roles doesn’t mean an organization is free of bias.

“The higher up the structure you go, you’ll find women and men of color who are stars, and then you’ll find a bunch of mediocre white guys,” Forbes said. “That’s a hard reality, but I swear it’s the truth.”

That’s because when it comes to promotions, men and women are judged differently, Forbes said. Women are judged by their accomplishments, while men are judged by potential.

Government agencies typically put more emphasis on fairness and equality in the hiring process compared to private sector businesses, but those “safeguards” aren’t always in place at every level when it comes to promoting, Forbes said. Promotions often are affected by implicit bias, gender stereotypes, privilege and “homologous reproduction,” meaning managers hire more people like themselves.

“You have to work really hard to take off the blinders of both gender privilege and racial privilege to understand the ways you approach issues that city government has to deal with,” she said. “For privileged people, the system itself reinforces that privilege and keeps telling you that you got there by your own accomplishments, when actually you didn’t.”

Job title

Department

Gender

Ethnic group

Director of Aviation

Airports Department

Male

Caucasian

City Attorney

City Attorney Office

Male

Caucasian

City Clerk

City Clerk Office

Female

Black

City Manager

City Manager’s Office

Mayor’s Office

Female

Caucasian

Chief of Staff

Mayor’s Office

Male

Caucasian

Assistant City Manager

City Manager’s Office

Female

Caucasian

Assistant City Manager

City Manager’s Office

Male

Caucasian

Director of Development

Development and Resource Management

Female

Caucasian

Director of Public Utilities

Department of Public Utilities

Male

Hispanic

Controller

Finance Department

Male

Caucasian

Fire Chief

Fire Department

Female

Caucasian

Chief Information Officer

Information Services Department

Male

Caucasian

Assistant Director

PARCS Department

Female

Caucasian

Director of Personnel Services

Personnel Services Department

Male

Caucasian

Police Chief

Police Department

Male

Caucasian

Public Works Director

Public Works Department

Male

Caucasian

Retirement Administrator

Retirement Department

Male

Not specified

Director of Transportation

Transportation Department

Male

Black

City departments with more women than men include personnel services, retirement, the city attorney’s office, finance, the city clerk’s office, the city manager and mayor’s office and City Council staff.

City Manager Wilma Quan and Fire Chief Kerri Donis are the first women in Fresno’s history to lead their respective departments.

Quan said that while she’s honored to be the first woman in her role, she doesn’t believe her gender has affected her in the workplace.

“I can’t wait, personally, for a day when there’s not a story based upon gender and it’s just the qualifications of a person for the position,” she said.

She joked that the only setbacks she faces at work is that her voice doesn’t carry the way a man’s does and her feet dangle at her chair on the City Council dais because of her height.

Quan began working for the city of Fresno as an urban planning specialist under former Mayor Ashley Swearengin. She was promoted to deputy city manager and assistant city manager before being named city manager by Mayor Lee Brand.

“I think the city has fostered a phenomenal culture and environment for me to rise through the ranks just by putting my head down and getting the work done,” she said. “…I’m trying to do my best to continue to grow that culture.”

For police Capt. Mindy Casto, the second-highest ranking woman in the police department, being a woman has given her a competitive edge for promotions, she said.

Being a woman can also come in handy when dealing with male suspects. “Sometimes it’s easier for them to discuss things with a woman because they don’t feel their manhood is being challenged,” she said.

Casto, who is married, said being a woman does affect how she interacts with her male colleagues. Sometimes her male colleagues go golfing together outside of work, but she keeps her workplace relationships professional. “I’m not going to hang out and drink beer with them,” she said.

Brand said Fresno’s employee statistics likely look similar to other San Joaquin Valley cities, such as Sacramento, Modesto and Merced. He also noted that half of the city’s workforce is made up by the police and fire departments, which are typically male-dominated fields.

In 2015, the Sacramento city workforce was predominantly male. About 70 percent of city workers who earned more than $20,000 were men. At Fresno State, where Forbes work, women slightly outpace men in employment, at nearly 54 percent. From 2014 to fall 2018, that number was on the rise.

The gender disparity in city employees likely existed long before Brand’s tenure.

Since 2017, Brand said, there’s been a marked improvement in city employee representation being closer to mirroring the community in terms of ethnicity. The city has hired 735 new employees since 2017.

Those numbers are due in part to the Equal Employment Opportunity Plan and Policy administrative order issued by Brand in January 2018, he said. That order formally adopted a policy for the city to partner with State Center Community College District, Fresno State, career technical education programs and other job fair opportunities to increase the employment pool “that’s reflective of our community,” he said.

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Jeff Cardell, the city’s Personnel Services director, said he and his staff meet quarterly to review how the city is utilizing the workforce and actively reaches out to demographics that may be underutilized.

“But I’ve got to say that our first priority is to hire the most qualified person,” Brand said, noting the city’s charter also includes a merit-based hiring provision.

Last month, Donis launched the first Girl’s Empowerment Camp in an effort to recruit women into the fire department.

“There is no easy path being a woman in a male-dominated profession,” she told The Bee last month. “You have to believe that you have every right to be there, too, and work as hard, if not more.”

The camp comes about a decade after a single mother, Michelle Maher, was awarded nearly $2.5 million in a gender discrimination lawsuit against the department after being forced out of the training academy. Maher’s attorney blamed the former fire chief for talking about gender equity but not practicing it.

Diversifying the workforce leads to better information, leadership and ideas, Fresno State’s Forbes said. Plus: “It’s just fair.”

“Public institutions should look like the people that pay taxes,” she said.

Councilmember Esmeralda Soria is the only elected woman serving residents between Fresno’s seven-member city council and strong mayor. She often speaks at women empowerment events about being the only woman – and a Latina – on the council.

“We have a long way to go before achieving parity for women,” she said.

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Brianna Calix covers politics and investigations for The Bee, where she works to hold public officials accountable and shine a light on issues that deeply affect residents’ lives. She previously worked for The Bee’s sister paper, the Merced Sun-Star, and earned her bachelor’s degree from Fresno State.
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