Morning Crank: An Even Bigger Table

1. At the inaugural meeting of her “innovation advisory council”—a group of local tech leaders brought together to suggest tech- and data-based approaches to addressing problems such as homelessness and traffic—Mayor Jenny Durkan lavished praise on Seattle’s tech community, calling them “some of the most brilliant talent anywhere,” and noted that there has already been “an outpouring of interest” among other tech leaders in joining the group. “As big as this table is, it’s going to get bigger,” Durkan said, before leaving leaving the group to their discussion about how to help the city address its most vexing issues.

Yesterday meeting was mostly introductory—officials from the city’s human services and transportation departments gave presentations and answered questions from the group, which included representatives from Amazon, Expedia, Microsoft, Twitter, Facebook, and Tableau—but it still revealed some of the challenges this very large group will face in coming up with “innovative” solutions. The first is precisely what Durkan highlighted—the “table” already includes dozens of people, with more, apparently, to come; One Table, the last “table” effort in which Durkan was involved, met a few times, fizzled for a while, and then came back with a tepid set of recommendations for addressing the root causes of homelessness that could be summarized, basically, as “build more housing, and also treatment.” Without a targeted mission in mind—say, creating a new system to give the city’s Navigation Team instant access to a list of available shelter beds so they don’t have to call around when removing people from encampments—it’s easy to see this council meeting a few times, releasing a list of half-conceived ideas, and disbanding without any commitment to spend more time and, importantly, money on actually implementing their own suggestions. Michael Schutzler, head of the Washington Technology Industry Association, alluded to this concern, noting that “we can’t boil the ocean.”

The other issue that was immediately apparent yesterday was the fact that the advisory council would have benefited from the inclusion of someone who works full-time on homelessness and can quickly get other members up to speed on basic facts about the issue. Like many such councils, members come to the table with varying levels of baseline knowledge; nonetheless, it was somewhat jarring to hear Steve McChesney, VP of global marketing for F5, say, “I don’t understand, personally, what the behaviors are leading up to” homelessness. The city and county have done numerous studies, surveys, and presentations on the causes of homelessness, and “behavior” (such as having a substance use disorder) falls far behind high housing costs on the list of the root causes of homelessness.

The group will hold two more meetings to come up with a list of ideas, which will then be narrowed down for further discussion. City council president Bruce Harrell suggested that future meetings might not be open to the public or the press, and should include a “strong facilitator,” noting that the negotiations that got the city a $15 minimum wage didn’t happen in the public eye.

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2. One data point that jumped out at me from the city’s latest report on race and gender equity in city employment was the fact that the overwhelming majority of city employees who took advantage of paid parental leave last year—73 percent—were men. (Meanwhile, 64 percent of those who took family leave, which is provided for employees to care for children and other family members, were women.) These numbers can be accounted for, in part, by what the report calls the “very imbalanced” nature of the city’s workforce: Just 38.6 percent of the city’s workers are women, so if men and women took parental leave at equal rates, you would expect men to make up about 61 percent of those taking parental leave. However, men have not historically been the ones taking parental leave, and even assuming that they do so at the same rate as women doesn’t account for the entire gender divide.

So what’s going on here? A deeper look at the numbers reveals that the departments where men are far more likely than women to take time off for a new baby are also the ones that are most heavily dominated by men—City Light (where 78 percent of those taking parental leave since a new 12-week leave policy went into effect were men, and men make up 70 percent of the workforce), Police (where 88 percent of leave-takers were men, and men make up 72 percent of the workforce), and Fire (where 94 percent of leave-takers were men, and men make up 88 percent of the workforce). Deborah Jaquith, a spokeswoman for the city’s human resources department, says, “We can’t say specifically why there’s a higher proportion of male PPL takers, but you can see how that figure isn’t so surprising in the context of the city’s overall gender imbalances and the imbalances in these departments specifically.”

Some additional theories: Perhaps men in mostly male environments feel that they are unlikely to suffer workplace penalties for taking time off; after all, everyone else is doing it. Conversely, perhaps women in those environments are less likely to take time off precisely because they fear they will be penalized for pregnancy and childbirth in a male-dominated environment. The data don’t say, and the report does not include a survey to find out the specific stories behind the demographics.

As for the fact that women are far more likely than men to take time off to take their kids to the doctor, stay home when a child is sick, or take care of an ailing family member?  Well, women have always borne most of the burden of household responsibilities, and—despite progress in other areas, such as men’s increasing willingness to take paternal leave, which is an important advance toward gender progress—they’re still doing so today.

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