TAMPA — When Jean Duncan joined the city as an engineer in 2003, she was one of just a few women in her department. Last year, she was promoted to one of the top posts in the city, leading departments of traditionally male-dominated departments like transportation, wastewater and water.
Duncan isn’t alone in ascending to the six-figure jobs atop the municipal hierarchy. Mayor Jane Castor’s first 18 months in office have been marked by the addition of high-profile hires like Carole Post, the city’s top economic development official, and, more recently, Brenda McKenzie, who heads the city’s workforce training efforts.
Longtime employees like Ocea Wynn, who was named administrator for Community Affairs and Neighborhood Engagement, Barbara Tripp, named interim fire chief and Sherisha Hills, interim Parks and Recreation director have also been tapped for prestigious positions. And the mayor has brought back veterans like City Attorney Gina Grimes.
“Girl Power, baby,” quipped Duncan, whose title is now Administrator of Infrastructure and Mobility.
Since Castor took office in May 2019, the number of women in the roughly two dozen top slots in the city’s workforce of nearly 4,500 has increased from eight to 13. Women now occupy slightly more than half of the leadership slots.
Castor says the larger role for women in her administration isn’t part of a plan. She says she hires the best person for the job, as she did when she was the city’s first female police chief between 2009 and 2015.
“That was was one of the things that I think people just look for. A community wants somebody that is going to do a good job. They want ... the most capable individual,” Castor said.
But she isn’t blind to the symbolism and what it means. As police chief, Castor said she understood the importance of being a trailblazer — not just for fellow women officers, but for girls.
She frequently tells the story of a mother approaching her at a civic breakfast to tell her that her nine-year-old daughter had seen Castor on television and announced that she now knew she could grow up to be anything.
“Sometimes, maybe, I had to run a little faster or jump a little higher,” Castor said, recalling her days on the police force. “The significance of being a role model should never be lost on anyone in a position of leadership.”
Council member John Dingfelder recently discovered the influx of women into leadership roles as he scrolled the city’s website. Dingfelder previously served on City Council under former Mayor Pam Iorio and has noticed the difference in gender representation over the past decade.
“Women are busting through the glass ceilings in our city and I think that’s great,” Dingfelder said.
Duncan said she never felt like Tampa was a good old boys club, nor did she experience any gender discrimination in her nearly two decades with the city. But, she said, more women in positions of power do bring attributes that benefits the city.
“There is a tendency to develop relationships and a collaborativeness to get things done,” Duncan said.
Ocea Wynn, the neighborhood engagement administrator, agreed. Wynn, who is also an engineer by training, joined the city in 2005. She credits Castor with promoting qualified women when the opportunity presents itself.
“By bringing on women, we’re able to even the playing field. Women bring a different perspective by the nature of who we are,” Wynn said.
Wynn, along with McKenzie, Tripp and Hills bring another layer of perspective as Black women. Wynn pointed to a recent conversation with a Black man who had been frustrated by City Hall for years. They sat and talked about Thanksgiving traditions, their grandparents and other cultural touchstones before they discussed his zoning complaint.
“It just immediately released a lot of pressure and burdens,” Wynn said.
For her part, Castor said she doesn’t think much about different management styles among men and women. At the end of the day, she said, residents want competence.
Before being asked about it by the Tampa Bay Times, Castor said she hadn’t realized that a majority of her top administrators were women.
“My deliberate focus is on getting the right people in the right positions. I hadn’t added it up, but it’s nice to see that half of the individuals in leadership positions reflect the population,” Castor said.