Is it Sexism?

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Is Oakland’s first woman mayor, Jean Quan, being unfairly criticized? Would some of the city officials and employees have treated the mayor differently if she were a man?

Sexism is a strong word. And I haven’t heard Mayor Quan or her staff use it. But I have had a number of conversations with people who think she hasn’t been afforded the honeymoon that her predecessors had, either from her colleagues, city employees or the media.

When she visited the police department line-up to try to improve her relationship with police officers, she was criticized for not taking questions. When she had a name plaque placed on the council dais, signaling her intention to attend meetings --  unlike her two predecessors -- it was unceremoniously removed. Disagreements with City Attorney John Russo over marijuana farms and the gang injunction have been public and nasty. Her decision to cut her salary by 25 percent didn’t get the attention you'd might expect.

Quan may have made some missteps. It probably was presumptuous to put her name on a council seat. The mayor does not sit on the council and only has a vote when there is a tie. But couldn’t council leaders have handled the situation more diplomatically?

Because of her years on the council, Quan has history with other council members and city officials the previous mayors didn’t have. That can be good and bad. Some of the tension could be a continuation of past conflicts. That’s the case with Russo -- he and Quan have crossed swords in the past. Quan’s not-so-cushy reception as mayor could be more related to her history than her gender.


I think it’s also true people can have an unconscious reaction to gender or race. They might demonstrate less respect and deference than they would if the mayor was a man. We’ve seen a similar dynamic in some of the country’s reaction to our first African American president. It might be impossible to neatly sort out unconscious prejudices from legitimate differences.

Oakland elected its first woman mayor. She hasn’t exactly had a honeymoon. If the city is going through a period of adjustment to get used to the idea, let’s hope it’s a short one. Oakland’s got too many other pressing challenges.

With a Perspective, I’m Brenda Payton