Building Careers and Celebrating Women in Public Service
September has held some memorable Thursdays for the CSS team. Thursday September 15’th CSS attended the 6’th annual Metro West Conference for Women, organized by She’s Local. Also, this Thursday, September 21’st is National Business Woman’s Day. In light of these momentous days, CSS wants to highlight our female team leaders, their impressive careers in local government, and reflect on the progress and future of women in leadership roles across the municipal world. CSS’ success as a Women Owned Business Enterprise hopes to not only showcase the aptitudes of women who have proven their dedication and talent, but also hopes to provide an environment to inspire and empower other women hoping to begin or continue careers in public service. Our CEO Nichol Figueiredo, Chief Development Officer Jennifer Thompson, and Senior Project Manager Blythe Robinson offered incredible insight into the achievements of their careers, reflections on the paths they’ve taken, and advice on how they did it all. Overall, they paint a picture of building your career with encouragement from a supportive network, maintaining a willingness to try and learn new things, and building confidence in your merit and qualifications.
So many industries and fields can be described as ‘male dominated’ in their staffing and leadership roles. While the exact data to determine gender ratios in municipal government are not within the purview of this blog, all three of the subjects of this conversation asserted that in the early days of their careers the industry seemed to be male dominated. Nichol, Jennifer, and Blythe remarked that it was more rare to see a woman in a leadership role within a department or organization at that time, and it seemed to be a more difficult milestone to reach. While much has changed since then, all three of these women reflect on this unique starting point, from where they began their careers.
Looking more closely into their experiences, Jennifer reflected on her career first working for a fire department, before moving to public works, and eventually to town hall, all these places were male dominated and almost entirely headed by men. This was a similar experience for Nichol as well, beginning her career working in government with the Massachusetts State Police. While these work environments were made up of a male majority, they did reflect that these organizations usually had talented women working in certain finance departments or within HR, and still gave them an impressive opportunity to learn and grow professionally. Within these environments they were treated and respected as equals in their work, and often encouraged by their network of supportive male colleagues. Though a male dominated environment may seem like an immense hurdle to overcome as a woman in municipal government, Nichol, Jennifer, and Blythe reflect that they were all able to hone their skills and learn from their colleagues so they could advance their careers in meaningful ways. Any industry or field is always made better when there is mutual respect amongst the team members, and individuals are allowed to grow and thrive as they encounter new challenges and learn with each experience.
As previously mentioned, the best tool to promote women in municipal government is support from their network and team members. No matter the department, support, and encouragement of women in public service is the most direct and surefire way to promote women in public service and maintain a diversity of backgrounds on a team. The women of our team all noted colleagues who supported them throughout their careers, some of whom, like Paul Scott and Peter Sellers, have since joined the CSS team. Nichol especially remarked on the support she received from her colleagues who encouraged her start her own business, affirming to her the merit of her skill which had already done wonders for the projects their team faced.
While it is impossible in this format to encompass the totality of these 3 successful careers, Blythe and Nichol reflected that using challenges as a learning opportunity was a key tool in advancing their careers. This practice allowed them to amass a plethora of skills and perspectives to lend to their work. Reflecting back to the beginning of their careers, while many work environments felt littered with unknowns and difficulties breaking into leadership roles, being surrounded by unfamiliar challenges can be the greatest learning opportunity in one’s career. Jennifer and Nichol explained that while you have limited control over your work environment, you can control how you respond to challenges. What has proven most successful to Nichol, Jennifer, and Blythe is bringing a willingness to learn new things, a practice which has opened unexpected doors. Blythe herself recalled being given an assignment in the Department of Public Works which was out of the purview of her normal job description. While this was an unexpected task, Blythe recalls using it as a chance to gain a deeper understanding of Public Works and used it as a way to build trust and respect with her colleagues in the department. Skills and perspectives gained from unlikely situations are the most valuable in building your career because they are unexpected. Facing the unexpected as a learning opportunity will nurture your career and skill set no matter the context of your work environment.
Skipping forward, from the start of their careers to their transition into leadership roles, Nichol, Jennifer, and Blythe were asked to reflect on their qualities as leaders throughout their career, becoming the women in leadership positions which were so infrequent when they first began. It’s no surprise that the values which guided the early stages of their career, also translated into the insight they had into leadership. They first impressed that someone in a leadership position should never ask what you wouldn’t be willing to do yourself. Maintaining this cornerstone of leadership can influence a variety of choices as a team leader, but at it’s core it is made up of respecting your colleagues, and building a relationship off of respect. When members of your team know that the person guiding them will only ask what they themselves would do, there is an immediate comfort because it implies that reasonable boundaries will be set and respected. Going hand in hand with that principle, they also recommended supporting your team, and letting team members shine. The leader is part of an intricate system, and in order to achieve reliable success, team members must be supported, similar to how Nichol and Jen remarked that they were supported by a network of colleagues.
Beyond these general qualities for successful leadership there was also an acknowledgement that the expectations on women might be different. Blythe remarked that sometimes people may expect a woman in a leadership role to be more traditionally feminine in their leadership style, or on the flip side, completely adhere to a pre-established traditionally masculine style of leadership. The key to success is to not try and be bound by expectations such as these, and to support your team through whatever style of leadership suits you best.
“The best advice I can share with any woman looking to begin or advance her career in government is, for every challenge you face, use it is an opportunity to step up, and learn something. Never be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone, push yourself to go the mile and have faith in yourself and your journey. Surround yourself with people you trust that know your potential, and who push you ahead.”
Looking forward to the future, Nichol, Jennifer, and Blythe were asked what advice they would give to women looking to either start or advance careers in public service. Jennifer put it most succinctly, “Know your merit, and know your worth.” Building up confidence in your worth and value will propel you to take bigger leaps in your career path. Jennifer reflected that a job that had a huge impact on her career path was one she didn’t think she would get. She recalls that she went into the interview with little expectations, which allowed her to honestly showcase her merit and skill, and she got the job when she least expected it. It can be difficult for women in public service to know how to advocate for their own advancement or feel as though they are qualified to apply for that promotion. Nichol, Jen, and Blythe’s careers in public service serve as an inspiration to all women who hope to become leaders in their communities, and they affirm that the best way to get more women in public service, is to support women through every step of their career. Recognizing and encouraging the talents of women in government will ensure that their voices and perspectives are heard.