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How do we make Los Angeles a great city?

Four women highlight mobility, homelessness, higher education and teachers among the key priorities

In the finale of a yearlong look at what makes a great American city, the USC Price School of Public Policy’s Athenian Society brought together some of Los Angeles’ most prominent female leaders to spotlight key issues and approaches to promote leadership across all sectors.

Bonnie Reiss, global director of the Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy at USC Price, moderated the May 7 discussion at the Galen Center. The event, titled “The Change Makers: Women in Leadership in the Great American City,” was part of the Dean’s Speaker Series presented by the Athenian Society, the philanthropic support group for USC Price.

Representing public, private and nonprofit sectors, the panelists were:

  • Paula Daniels ’77, who serves on the California Water Commission and founded the Los Angeles Food Policy Council.
  • Mary Leslie PhD ’79, president of the Los Angeles Business Council.
  • Deidre Lind MPAMW ’95, president of the Mayor’s Fund for Los Angeles.
  • Nury Martinez, councilwoman for the city of Los Angeles’ 6th District.

Surprising stats

Before the panelists began their discussion, USC Price Dean Jack H. Knott set the stage for the discussion with some harrowing statistics.

Knott cited a recent study finding that only 5 percent of Fortune 1000 companies are headed by women despite those female CEOs producing equity returns 226 percent better than the S&P 500 over the past 12 years.

He added that in government, women make up 19 percent of the House of Representatives and 20 percent of the Senate; and in education, there are more women than men in the student population but only 30 percent of university presidents are women. Knott and Reiss wrote about the impact of women leadership — or lack thereof — in a recent Sacramento Bee op-ed piece.

“Unfortunately, in today’s world we see a gap in the composition of leadership in almost all sectors of society,” Knott said. “To put it simply, women are underrepresented in these roles, and that really needs to change. As dean, I’m enormously proud that in our school, four of the six senior leaders are women. They’re dynamic innovators whose contributions have really catapulted the school to the level of prominence it has today.”

Leslie and Lind received their graduate degrees from USC Price, and Daniels earned her bachelor’s degree from the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

Civic challenges

In first talking about the challenges Los Angeles faces as a great American city, Daniels and Martinez mentioned income inequality, Lind pointed out that Los Angeles is still the homeless capital of the country (ranking 98th out of 100 among major cities in terms of unemployed youth) and Leslie focused on education, in which only 61 percent of boys and 72 percent of girls graduate from high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

In suggestions on how to improve income inequality, Leslie expressed the importance to better connect affordable housing to jobs, Lind suggested a career pipeline established by the city to get local children the appropriate training to work in the jobs of today and tomorrow, Daniels stressed voter engagement and Martinez commented on California’s deficiency in funding public education (48th in per-pupil spending).

Martinez currently is the only woman among 15 members of the Los Angeles City Council. She urged women to help each other prepare to be leaders, saying it is their responsibility to groom other women and serve as role models for young girls to see women in positions of power and leadership.

“If women are serious about running, we need to groom them, prepare them and emotionally support them,” Martinez said. “At City Hall, women are running campaigns, fundraising and getting men elected. There’s no reason why more women can’t run in the city and win.”

Gender roles

The panelists discussed how the traditional gender roles play a part in the shortage of female leaders. The consideration over when to get married and start a family is different from male counterparts. Successful men often have women making sure the home and children are being maintained, while women experience what Martinez called a “mommy guilt” when work takes priority.

More women are needed in leadership because they bring a different perspective, the panel noted. Martinez has noticed this perspective missing on the city council when debating things such as minimum wage or the design of a park. Leslie reiterated what she once heard Bill Clinton say about women, that they are collaborative, goal-oriented and willing to suppress ego to get something done.

“We are now at a place where we have the ability as women leaders to express ourselves differently and have a range of personalities and skills that we bring all based on our experience,” Daniels said. “And yes, there are different experiences we have as women. For the same reasons that we want ethnic diversity, gender diversity — particularly in comparison with representation in society — is important.”

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