A matter of parity

The numbers speak more than the women do: Although the majority of Buncombe County residents are women (52 percent), only 44 percent of its registered voters are female. And women number a mere 38 percent of the citizens appointed to Asheville boards and commissions; Buncombe County does a little better, with 41 percent of its board and commission members being women.

Those were the disappointing facts presented to the Buncombe County Women’s Commission on a chilly day in early November.

The 15 commission members huddled around an impromptu conference table, made up of smaller tables shoved together in the Board of Commissioners’ chambers. The sounds of the Courthouse shutting down for the day filtered in from outside the room: a watchman made the rounds, locking doors and shutting off lights, although the hour hadn’t even reached 6 p.m. Asheville City Council member Barbara Field, arriving late, recounted that the Courthouse’s outside doors had been locked. “I had to jump up and down and knock on the door to get someone’s attention,” she said, laughing.

With dry humor, Women’s Commission member Debra Hay observed that perseverance seems to be a quality women need in order to get appointed to county boards and commissions. And fellow member Sarah Thornburg remarked that female representation is not “horrible, but neither is it a state of parity.” Indeed, for some women, the percentages may be even lower: When commission member Joyce Harrison asked about the number of minority women serving on boards and commissions, Thornburg replied that city and county officials don’t appear to track those numbers.

As a first step toward achieving more balanced representation, the group invited Buncombe County Commissioner Patsy Keever, Field and newly elected Asheville City Council member Terry Whitmire to give them some advice. To get the discussion going, Hay asked the three what qualities women need, in order to get appointed to local boards and commissions.

Besides perseverance, Keever stressed the importance of speaking up and speaking out. Too often, she said, women stay quiet and defer to the men — even at her own Board of Commissioners sessions. “I know I don’t speak out up there, because the guys are always talking,” she confessed, adding, “When there are men around, the women don’t tend to speak up.”

Whitmire tossed in that the men seem to do all the talking, while the women do all the work. But commission member Dr. Carol Jean Smith cautioned that a woman needs “assertiveness, not aggressiveness.”

Field commented that American culture tends to characterize leadership “in terms of the hero or the star.” But the kind of leader needed for the new millennium is one who can build consensus, she reflected, adding, “Women are good at this.”

But first, suggested Whitmire, women who want to serve should seek to learn basic organizational skills by joining groups such as the League of Women Voters, Leadership Asheville or the Junior League.

“Join something you have a passion for,” urged Field. “[And] if you want to get into politics, I highly recommend you get involved in someone [else’s] campaign [first].” Women should also attend the meetings of any boards they’re interested in joining, and “do their homework” by reading up on those boards’ charters and missions. Too often, Field continued, City Council is faced with applicants who’ve never even been to a board meeting and aren’t well informed about the purpose of the board they’re applying to serve on. Then she tossed in a side remark, “I think I’m too old for the Junior League.”

“So am I,” said Keever. But maybe a bit of mature self-confidence can help: Reflecting on the ongoing, heated debate about countywide zoning, Keever noted that women interested in politics “have to have real thick skin.” She also recommended networking and talking to women who already hold public office.

Whitmire said that’s what she did before jumping into the City Council race this fall. (And apparently, it worked: She received more votes than any of the male candidates.)

Hay then asked what Whitmire, Keever and Field see as the greatest needs of women in Asheville and Buncombe County.

“Childcare,” Keever replied.

“Housing — but that’s for everybody,” answered Field.

“Day-to-day living,” said Whitmire. She explained that one of the most frequent comments she heard from women during her campaign was: “‘I’m working two jobs, and I can’t get by.’ It’s the affordable-housing/ education/ economic-development issue.”

Field touched Whitmire’s shoulder and teased, “You’re not running for office now.”

Whitmire had to laugh, having run her campaign on those very issues in a sort of one-two-three punch. But then she raised another point: If this commission is serious about expanding leadership opportunities for women, it needs to consider a basic question: “Ask yourselves, ‘Would a woman who makes $18,000 a year feel comfortable here?'” She looked around at the mix of professional women in the room — all successful at what they do, all leaders in the community, and, presumably, all earning a good deal more than $18,000. “If you’re going to include [women of all income levels] in the process, you’ve got to make them feel comfortable,” said Whitmire. She gestured at the imposing TV monitors, formal chairs and dais in the County Commissioners’ chambers. “This isn’t necessarily an inviting place for the average-wage woman in Buncombe County,” she reflected, suggesting that the group hold less formal meetings, with less formal attire.

On the other hand, added Keever and Field, women might also need a quick lesson in dressing professionally — or in understanding Robert’s Rules of Order.

Hay mentioned a Women’s Commission project that’s already in the works: A training session, scheduled for March 25, next year, at the Land-of-Sky Regional Council’s offices, off the Leicester Highway. The agenda has yet to be set, but the commission’s most immediate overall goal is to get more women trained and appointed to local boards and commissions, Hay explained. She noted that the group plans to write to women who are already serving on boards and commissions and solicit the names of other women who might be interested in attending the training session.

But when it comes to getting the word out, the persevering Women’s Commission won’t stop there. Said Hay, “We’ll even write letters to the men.”

For more information about the Women’s Commission or the March training session, contact President Annaleah Atkinson at 665-7773.

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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