By Gail Spector
While stories of sexual equality and harassment have gained prominence in the national debate, Newton’s and Needham’s top women in government are paying close attention to how these issues play out locally. No strangers to witnessing the behavior behind the #metoo movement, Ruthanne Fuller, Newton's first woman mayor, and Marianne Cooley, Needham's first female chair of the Board of Selectmen in 22 years, are committed to establishing strong guidelines about the issue that has dominated news cycles for several months.
Fuller, a management consultant, comes to her job after serving on the Newton City Council for eight years. Cooley, a member of the Board of Selectmen for five years, previously served on the Needham School Committee for nine years, including two stints as chair. Both women hope to use their position as the top elected official in their communities as an opportunity to teach others about the roles women can play in 2018.
Cooley, secretary of the Board of Trustees and assistant vice president at Wellesley College, thinks it’s important that women see other women holding leadership positions.
“I know that when I was on school committee, I talked to other women all the time and said, ‘You need to think about running. We need more women who know what it’s like in the trenches with our schools,’” she said.
“I feel the same way about town government,” Cooley continued. “Women are the people who day-to-day notice what’s happening in town and that’s an important perspective. I know I sit at meetings with my four male colleagues and they are all wonderful and deeply dedicated to the town of Needham but I’ll say something and they’ll all look at me and say, ‘Oh, that’s a different perspective.’ It happens all the time.”
Fuller agreed, but added, “I’m finding both for women but, also for girls, it’s very important to know that a woman can be in the executive office or the chair’s position.
“But I think equally important is that men and boys need to learn it as well.
I think when a woman, for the first time or almost for the first time, is in that leadership role, the agenda changes, the language in a meeting changes and therefore, the status quo changes. “
“Language is such an interesting thing,” said Cooley, who is the only women on Needham’s five-member board. “I would say after a year of being the one woman, it’s hard. I notice that when I stepped on that board, frequently it was ‘Mr. Bulian and Mr. Handel and Marianne.’ It made me crazy. I’ve worked hard this year to use first names for the most part.
“It really takes a conscious effort to try to pull them along in a different direction, so that everybody is treated with an equal level of respect. They are wonderful guys but it is a fascinating thing.”
Both leaders have corrected people’s language about women. In the month that Fuller’s been in office, she’s said she’s heard men in City Hall talk about the women in their departments as girls. “I point that out to them,” she said.
Cooley recently corrected someone when he called Needham’s town manager – a woman who has worked in Town Hall for 28 years -- a girl. That prompted another discussion, she said.
Stopping sexual harassment is on both women’s agendas. Fuller said that even before she was inaugurated, she started asking questions about outstanding sexual harassment claims. As former chair of the city council’s Audit Committee, she was up to date on the city’s policy.
“We went over [the sexual harassment policy] very recently and made sure that there were ways for people to report that wasn’t directly to their boss because the boss sometimes can be the issue,” Fuller said.
“In Needham, as chair of the board that’s responsible for executive oversight of the entire town, it would be my goal that the vehicle and the avenues are open so that people are able to bring a complaint forward if they need to,” Cooley said.
Fuller and Cooley agreed that there is always more to do when training employees and establishing guidelines about sexual harassment.
“I would say we need more training, more sensitivity, more explicit policies, even better guidelines,” Fuller said.