Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories
Not that it wouldn’t become obvious to the reader only shortly after diving into this article, but nonetheless, I think that it is important to address that as a male author of an article that is going to attempt to highlight the tremendous effort, resilience, and leadership displayed by a number of my fellow co-workers. I can never truly understand their experience and as a result will be limited in my ability to tell the complete story.
This as it happens comes right on the heels of the kickoff for Women’s History Month, the theme of which has been announced as “Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories” for 2023.
The irony of the situation as I currently find it, that of a man attempting to tell a story of a woman who celebrates the stories of other women is not lost on me. Fortunately, when I encounter the odd situation such as this one, the undertaking of which is best handled with a certain amount of intentionality and tact I have the benefit of working directly with and for a woman who poses the unique and woefully underappreciated abilities to recognize her audience, speak plainly, and lead through action.
An Assistant Director with the Department of Leisure, Families, and Recreation, Kathy McGuire is in no small part responsible for the department’s demonstrated history of service for the community, and continues to be a central and active figure driving the evolution of the culture, service and programs supporting recreation and quality of life for community residents.
To look over McGuire’s professional contributions and accomplishments is enough to leave anybody impressed. As an outsider looking in, a list of the programs, events, and services that her name is attached to over the years would be proof enough of a tangible impact and benefit to the nearly 60,000 residents of the community she serves. For those fortunate enough to work with her regularly though the most impressive metric does not appear on an annual report. An ability to lead.
As a young professional in the largely male-dominated field of municipal government, McGuire was surrounded by a boys club of department heads, supervisors, and managers. Thinking back to some of those early meetings McGuire recounts the frustration with simply trying to engage colleagues and voice opinions.
“I can remember literally sitting at the table and making a suggestion at a meeting only to be talked over and dismissed,” McGuire said. “A few minutes later the same exact idea comes up and everyone is nodding and listening with intention. It was very much like these are the same things I’m thinking and even saying! Why does it need to be repeated by someone else to get heard!”
For McGuire, the resistance she met in the office and around the conference table was admittedly a bit of a surprise.
“When I started working full-time for the town I honestly thought that we were all a team, that we were just going to work hard, and work together. That was an example of my naivete at that time.”
As she would eventually come to find the proverbial deck was stacked against her and her female colleagues from the beginning.
“The baseline was jugement, this sort of hanging cloud of inferiority that wasn’t based on merit or experience. It might never have been spoken out loud but it didn’t need to be, it was implied and it was just as clear.”
While these early meetings may have been dominated by male supervisors and managers, there was an alarming absence of leaders. One might be excused for using the terms interchangeably, manager, and leader. But they are very much different.
To lead others requires that an individual first have a tremendous understanding of self, of accountability, and of empathy. By that criteria McGuire has been developing her leadership style for decades giving credit to both her past and present for her constant evolution.
When questioned about some of the best advice she had ever received that influenced the way she carries herself and ultimately inspires others McGuire first recounted the worst advice she’d been given.
“If you want to succeed and advance the best thing to do is keep a low profile, stay quiet, don’t be the one people are talking about when you leave the room.”
While undoubtedly a loosely veiled attempt to maintain the status quo, the misguidance would ultimately serve its purpose standing in stark contrast to advice that would eventually shape her own career and those of many others she would eventually influence.
“Early on I had listened to bad advice from people that I had thought had my best interest in mind. Maybe it’s because of that that I really noticed and took to heart the good advice when it came. Learning to trust myself and my voice, making sure that it’s not just heard but listed to, that was the first step”
Confidence and an aire of credibility might not be something McGuire needs to work as hard at displaying these days, but she is the first to acknowledge that her strength as a leader is largely dependent on the support she receives from the other women who collaborate and share in the responsibilities of her department.
When asked directly what makes her female colleagues an indispensable part of her success and effectiveness McGuire paused.
“I don’t do what I do without a single one of them, simple. Our administrators (Alysia Dumais and Melanie Hansley Vassilopolous) are just genuine, good people. They routinely put others ahead of their own interest; how do you assign a value to that?”
Of her co-workers Taylor McBride and Heather Wolchowski, McGuire immediately turned to words that include compassion, joy, and tenderness to describe their own ability to lead, qualities that McGuire has no doubt earned an appreciation and respect for over her own career.
After this exchange, McGuire makes mention of the idea that too often women are dismissed as being too emotional, or weak to be effective in stressful leadership situations. An idea that she immediately dismisses citing any number of instances how the very qualities she attributes to her colleagues have directly resulted in the development of authentic relationships, and long-term resolution to conflict within the department.
Before moving on and almost unknowingly she said, “Anyone can pretend to be a tough guy, that’s easy. Being vulnerable, that’s hard work”.
When asked of the future and what the outlook for herself and women in positions of authority in general might look like ten years from now, there is little hesitation.
“Things are already better than when I started, some of the things that were foreign to me as a young professional, things that I really had to work for are the same things women can and should expect now. That’s the best part about my position now, I’m not afraid to speak up. That girl who accepted that bad advice all those years ago, she’s gone now. Now if I want something I ask for it, and if I need something I demand it.”