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Does local government reflect the community?

Gender, racial disparities still pervade local municipalities


This story was originally published in the Dec. 12, 2018, edition of City Pulse.

Local government works for the people. But what happens when the people don’t work for local government?

A City Pulse investigation revealed several key disparities among employees hired within townships, cities and other governmental agencies within the Greater Lansing region. The overarching trend: Municipalities have made strides toward gender and racial diversity — but the statistics, by and large, are still skewed toward white men.

Freedom of Information Act requests sent to various governmental agencies bear out that most employees are disproportionately male. And white employees, in every agency, still tend to outnumber their African American and Hispanic counterparts — particularly those within managerial roles.

Figures from the U.S. Census Bureau show that women account for a larger portion of the population than men within every local community. The local region, even in the most diverse areas of Lansing, is at least 60 percent white. But locally employed white men still routinely exceed those census percentages across the board.

So what’s the problem?

True diversity, according to officials with the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion, requires committed leadership and continuous improvements to workplace culture. A “pipeline” needs to engage diverse talent from an early age and citizens need to stay meaningfully involved if they ever want to bridge that divide.

Most local officials suggested diversity in employment has remained at the tops of their agendas, especially after a record-breaking number of women ran for elected office earlier this year. Diverse ideas, including those from people of color, invariably lead to a richer discourse and a more realistic representation of local neighborhoods.

But only three public entities have made significant strides in achieving gender equity in management and employment, officials said. And while some local municipalities have leveled their racial composition with census figures, the struggle to attract and retain a diverse and locally representative staff requires constant commitment.

And the statistics show that not every local governmental agency has been able to keep up with the pace.

“The Year of the Woman”

Men outnumber women within most of the local agencies that provided data to City Pulse. In some cases, those figures align with overall demographics from the U.S. Census Bureau. In others, the number of men employed within governmental positions is disproportionately higher than statistics from the rest of their communities.

Each municipality was also asked to provide a roster of employees tasked with managerial responsibilities. The gender-based disparity — particularly within the upper echelons of the organizations — only continued to grow.

Women were not only outnumbered, but many seemed to be stuck on a lower rung of the organizational ladder.

Data shows “the same disparities in the employment of women, particularly in managerial positions, that we see across the country,” explained Mary Engelman, the executive director of the Michigan Women’s Commission.

Only Ingham County government, Michigan State University and the city of East Lansing have managed to keep up with a gender-balanced staff, Engelmann noted. Females outnumber their male colleagues at both MSU and Ingham County. And East Lansing’s staff (with about 49 percent women) closely matches with city demographics.

“This pattern tells us that when employers — in government, private business or academia — focus on equity, they can deliver it,” Engelman added, labeling the diverse path forward as an “ongoing struggle.”

“The more reflective our public bodies are of the people they serve, the more responsive government becomes.”

The City of Lansing and Delhi Township were among the worst gender offenders. While the capital city boasts about a 52-percent female population, they only account for about 29 percent of the city staff. Delhi Township, with a population of 53 percent women, is also heavily weighted down with about 72 percent male employees.

Delhi Township Manager John Elsinga — who said he “doesn’t pay much attention” to diversity statistics — blamed the disparity on the general nature of the job. Firefighters and maintenance personnel have historically been men. Office workers are typically women. And it can be difficult to shake up the status quo, he maintained.

“I wasn’t aware of that situation,” added Township Supervisor John Hayhoe. “I’m paying attention to the streets and the sidewalks, and I don’t really look at the sex of the people we hire. I don’t look at their ages and their race. I just like to make sure we have the best people working to do the best job possible for the township.”

Officials at the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan cautioned local officials to take a “long and hard look” at their hiring and recruitment efforts. It’s critical for local municipalities to reflect the communities they serve. When the decision-making table doesn’t look like the community, everyone suffers, officials contended.

“Passively waiting for people of color and women to apply in hopes that this will somehow create a diverse staff is a formula for failure and puts the blame on people of color and women for not applying rather than a recruitment process that leaves people out,” added Rana Elmir, deputy director of the ACLU of Michigan.

Lansing Mayor Andy Schor has kept a closer eye on the composition of his staff. He contended most of the gender disparities among city personnel are based on a long and imbalanced history. Since he was elected mayor, Schor has been intentionally careful to hire a more equitable mix of men and women into city offices, he said.

Lansing hired 134 men and 98 women since Schor was elected amid an effort to balance those statistics. But, like many other local officials explained, it can be difficult to hire a diverse staff when diverse applicants aren’t going after the jobs. While Schor expressed a commitment to diversity, he said his hands are tied by the applicant pool.

“Clearly, we want our workforce to be reflective of the community, but you can’t get people hired if they don’t apply for the job,” Schor added. “In terms of women as opposed to men? I don’t really have thoughts on that. We advertise far and wide. We have folks send emails out to different groups. We’re really doing our best.”

Ingham County, on the other hand, is 51 percent female but women account for nearly 62 percent of the staff. Human Resources Director Sue Graham said that diversity was only made possible by recruiting with a “wider net.” She always reaches out to inclusion-based organizations when looking to fill each position, she emphasized.

“We’re fully aware of that (applicant pool) issue,” explained County Commissioner Bryan Crenshaw. “We work with outreach. We look at different groups to share these job postings, and it’s working. There are ways to put these options in front of people. It’s just about reaching out and working with different community groups.”

As for the grittier professions that typically scare away female applicants? An ACLU spokesperson emphasized it provides “all the more reason” a diverse recruitment plan should be a key priority for local governments.

“One way to do this is to develop a robust recruitment plan seeking a diverse pool of applicants year-round by fostering relationships with organizations and people who are also committed to diversity and can help identify potential hires,” Elmir added. “It’s about prioritizing what you want and making it a reality.”

Racial Disparities

Every local government that provided data for this story tallied an exponentially larger number of white employees compared to people of color. Based on overall population demographics, this (at least to some degree) was an expected finding. But some local agencies have clearly been able to diversify their staff more than others.

So what’s their secret?

State Rep.-elect Sarah Anthony has been involved with politics since she took an internship in high school. She said women of color — particularly those placed in management roles — helped her to realize the viability of successfully pursuing a government career. It just took one person to help open the door, she said.

“I think it’s important to have people of color in these managerial positions,” Anthony added. “It instills trust in the system among people of color. It means something when you have people reflective of the diversity within the community. That’s an intangible benefit because sometimes these systems are inherently biased against us.”

Delhi Township doesn’t track the racial composition of its staff at all. Delta Township has a 12-percent black population but African Americans only account for 1.6 percent of the heavily white staff. Meridian Township operates with similar statistics but has so-far failed to promote a single African American into management.

Joyce Marx, the human resources director at Meridian Township, said most (primarily white) employees have been on staff with the township for decades. Diversity is important to the township overall, but it’s hard to enact any meaningful statistical changes when the job openings are so far and few between, she maintained.

“We’re looking for African American employees, but we haven’t needed additional people in years,” Marx said.

In Lansing Township, Supervisor Dion’trae Hayes has made diversity a key element within the hiring process. Local residents like to be able to see some version of themselves within the governments that represent them, she emphasized. And the township, accordingly, is “constantly” looking to diversify its staff, she said.

“It’s also important for identity,” Hayes added. “Specifically, for children of color growing up, they need role models in the community. They want someone to identify with. I don’t think elevating one group of people over another really means you have to put one down. It’s about working collaboratively, together.”

Delta Township Manager Brian Reed wasn’t happy to see the statistics for his neck of the woods. He recognized that people of color usually serve on several, unpaid township boards and commissions but he’d still like to enhance the racial diversity of his staff. It’s going to take some “continuous effort” to make a change, he said.

“I think you have to make a commitment to it and do your best to try to make it happen,” Reed added. “I think that Delta Township has really made that commitment. It’s obviously not reflected in our numbers at the moment, but I think we’ll only continue to improve on those from here. It’s certainly a priority for us.”

But officials at the Michigan Department of Civil Rights — after reviewing the employment data — said that Lansing area communities that grew in the white flight era of the late ‘60s and ‘70s have failed to adequately represent people of color within their employment ranks. And it’s about time for some change, officials said.

“That points to a need for intentional and targeted strategies to achieve more equitable outcomes in government and in the hiring and retaining of people of color,” according to Agustin V. Arbulu, state department director.

And that doesn’t necessarily mean that minorities should be hired based on census quotas, said Lansing Councilwoman Patricia Spitzley. It’s simply about recognizing that racial disparities still exist within local governments and taking intentional steps to weed out decades of implicit bias in the overall hiring practice.

“We already know traditional recruiting doesn’t work,” Spitzley said. “If it did, we wouldn’t be talking about it. We all need to take an extra step to recruit in other places and make sure our employment and applicant pools are diverse. It’s about acknowledging that the existing method isn’t the correct one and doing something about it.”

Officials at Ingham County, with a racial employment composition that almost exactly mirrors local census figures, said that process includes reaching out to organizations like the Asian Pacific American Affairs Commission and the Hispanic-Latino Commission of Michigan whenever county-level jobs become available.

“As demographics change, we should look to grow our workforce to reflect the community,” Spitzley added. “We have to break away from these stereotypes and break away from being offended by even talking about diversity. Until we’re able to do that, we’re bound to repeat the same mistakes that we’ve made in the past.”


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