Case Study: City of Dallas

Dallas, Texas
13,000 Employees
Senior executive level leaders: assistant city manager, chief financial officer, planning officer, and director of water utilities
Visible and Challenging Job Assignments
Development of External Networks
Managers Who Coach and Develop
Objective Hiring, Performance Reviews, and Promotion

The Dallas city government is a public sector organization where women have advanced to a number of senior-level roles. The city of 1.2 million people is the nation’s ninth largest and is known for a governance structure led by a strong city manager.

The city has formal policies in place that support diversity in leadership. Within that context, individual women have taken actions that have led to career advancement. Assistant city manager Jill Jordan explains that seeking a diverse talent pool is part of the culture and is included in each executive’s goals.

“We continue to witness the value of diversity in our leadership. These women have paved paths for our younger generation to take on critical roles that impact our community. We are grateful for their contribution to our city,” says A.C. Gonzalez, the city manager.

Jodie Puckett, director of the Dallas Water Utilities, says she has devoted her entire career to making a difference in the lives of those in the broader community. “Demographics have changed since I joined the city in 1982, and we think it makes sense to have a workforce that reflects those we serve on all aspects of diversity. The city has afforded opportunities to women and racial minorities that have not been available to those in the private sector.”

Women working for the city are succeeding in careers that have traditionally been male dominated. Theresa O’Donnell, the city’s chief planning officer, was determined to be in the “rough and tumble” world of zoning and permitting when she started her career rather than take a more traditional female role in historic preservation or community development. Following stints in Las Vegas and Houston, O’Donnell joined the city of Dallas in the early 2000s. From her perspective, there is greater opportunity for women in zoning on the public side of the equation than on the private side.

Puckett has blazed a number of trails for women in the field; one was when she moved from the budget office to oversee solid waste, streets, and sanitation before becoming the first woman to lead Dallas Water Utilities. However, any focus on her gender in her current role is not of primary importance, she says. “I am here to make things happen, and I am energized by the network of people who work together for the people of the city of Dallas.”

Women have gained visibility while charting career paths that include both lateral moves and promotions, providing broad exposure to different areas. For example, O’Donnell’s next assignment will be serving as the city’s chief resilience officer as part of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities network.

It is not insignificant that women have held a number of top roles in Dallas over the years, including Mary Suhm, who was city manager until 2013, accounting for eight of her 35 years with the city. Zaida Basora, assistant director of public works, describes Suhm’s influence on her own transition from the manager level: “I took part in the women’s issues forum led by Mary Suhm and learned a great deal about how to move to the next level of leadership and received feedback on coaching on roles that would be a good fit.”

Puckett also notes that having women on the City Council attracts leaders and gives women strong role models. Currently five of 14 City Council members are women.

For a number of women working for the city, playing an active leadership role in external networks has supported career advancement. Basora is the 2015 president-elect of the American Institute of Architects Dallas and a founding member and 2010 chair of the U.S. Green Building Council’s North Texas chapter; she was appointed to the General Services Administration’s Office of High-Performance Green Buildings Advisory Committee from 2011 to 2013.

“I am here to make things happen, and I am energized by the network of people who work together for the people of the city of Dallas.”

One engineer, Sophia Harvey, launched a networking group in the mid-1990s to support the careers of female engineers who work for a variety of employers in Dallas, both in the public and private sector. The group was founded when Harvey led the Dallas branch of the American Society of Civil Engineers. “We provide each other with mentoring and advice during strong economic times and downturns,” says Harvey. She emphasizes that women in the networking group also are active in professional societies and associations that include both men and women.

Women who have risen to senior leadership in Dallas stress the importance of technical expertise. “You need to know your business inside out,” says Ashley Eubanks, assistant director of sustainable development and construction.

Eubanks credits her success to the coaching and mentoring she received from the two women to whom she reported earlier in her career. “I had excellent role models who demonstrated how to remain steadfast through the challenges of leading in the field,” she says. The ULI Women’s Leadership Initiative research indicates that having managers who coach and develop is a top priority in advancing women.

Eubanks coaches and mentors her staff in the same tradition. “First and foremost I stress getting the professional training and education so they know their business better than anyone. Next, I encourage them to develop a strong network of relationships by being sure they are spending time with those who work across the city,” she says.

What’s next? According to Jordan, Dallas will continue to work to rise to the challenge of bringing even more women into traditionally male roles, such as those in the construction, fire, and police fields.

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