How Marty Walsh Can Carry Mayor Menino’s Torch for Women

From one mayor to the next, let's hope the momentum continues.

In his State of the City address this past January, an ebullient Tom Menino sauntered to the podium while the Kelly Clarkson anthem, “Stronger,” played overhead. At that point in time, the song was indicative of a few things: Tommy was back, he was feeling much better (remember, we still had no idea whether he’d run for reelection), and he was gearing up to help the women of Boston.

Menino dedicated a good portion of his speech to talking about ways that he’d make Boston “the premier city for working women,” and later called 2013 “the year of the woman.” He noted that the city’s women face a wage gap, need more support with childcare, and how he wanted to create a network of women-owned businesses. In the weeks that followed, he assembled an impressive roster on his Women’s Workforce Council, and in the last year of his administration, he made some other significant steps forward.

But now, after a mayoral election that involved only one female candidate and failed to take a dive deep into women-centric policies, newly elected Marty Walsh needs to make sure that he follows through on his platform issues and continues the momentum that Menino started.

Just last month, the Women’s Workforce Council released a study surveying the city’s gender landscape. The findings are telling: Women make up 52 percent of the city’s population; a higher proportion of women aged 20 to 34 live here than anywhere else; and Boston’s women are the highest-educated in the entire country.

In spite of those findings, Boston still has a wage gap, with women earning 83 cents for every dollar a man makes. And so Menino launched a pledge where local businesses could commit to closing the gap, and has held a popular series of WAGE salary-negotiation sessions for women, hosted by former Lieutenant Governor Evelyn Murphy. “We’ve done over 40 workshops, and they were beginning to scale,” Murphy says.

“I felt like Beyonce. Those events sold out in a day and half,” says Jeanne Dasaro, the founder of Wonder Women Boston, a young women’s networking group who worked with the city to coordinate the events.

But as of Tuesday, neither Murphy nor Dasaro had heard from either candidate about the possibility of extending or expanding the program. “They’ve had the Women for Marty or Women for Connolly events, but nothing that translates into policy,” says Dasaro. “That’s been one of the disappointing things. We spent a year and a half building a relationship with the city.”

Murphy thinks Walsh is more than capable—“clearly the signals are there that he cares about people”—and hopes that he’ll take a “hands on approach.” Her advice? Focus on the unemployed women, particularly ones who are raising families. And she’s seeing a surge in women over 50 who are looking for work and need viable opportunities. Walsh has been talking big about his “Building Pathways” efforts to bring women and minorities into trade jobs. She hopes he can find similar opportunities for women across the city.

Menino also made a lot of the fact that he’s brought together women business-owners in the city’s commercial districts through his “Women on Main” program. Those who have seen the program in action also feel that Walsh can expand it. “It’s a great start, but there are so many women-owned businesses that aren’t represented in those commercial districts or a storefront,” says Susan Duffy, the head of the Center for Women’s Leadership at Babson College. “The freelancer, professional service provider, or entrepreneur are all women who aren’t represented in that initiative. It needs to be more inclusive.” She suggests Walsh hosts a series of town hall meetings for all local women—business owners or not—to enable him to really focus on serving them well.

And speaking of service, many women I spoke to hope that Walsh surrounds himself with public servants that reflect the diversity of the city. According to the diversity survey by Blackstonian, only 39 percent of Menino’s administration was female. Putting more women into roles within the administration can help put them on the path toward public office, says Taylor Woods-Gauthier, the executive director of Emerge Massachusetts, a group that works to help elect Democratic female candidates in the Commonwealth. “Women bring a different perspective to lawmaking and governing, and that’s totally missing right now,” she says.

If the next mayor “would create the optic and the narrative of having gender balance, he’s going to influence a whole heck of a lot for the next four years,” says Duffy. “God, that would be so cool, and it shouldn’t feel so bold.”

It took Tom Menino 20 years to make 2013 the year of the women, and make women’s issues a focal point of his administration. Let’s hope Walsh will carry the torch into 2014 and beyond.