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Shattering Glass Ceilings, Miami Style

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Tony Winton
July 7, 2017

Research shows despite decades of progress, women hold few government senior management positions. A 2012 article in The Journal of Public Affairs Education notes women only hold 12 percent of the top jobs. So, on numbers alone, the fact that three women in Miami-Dade County are holding the senior spots in their municipalities is noticeable.

“As with their private-sector counterparts,” says North Miami Beach Mayor George Vallejo, “institutional gender biases that have worked against women reaching the CEO position.”

But the stories of Ana Garcia, Yoceyln Galiano and Yolanda Aguilar are even more exceptional as they all draw from the Cuban immigrant experience that’s become such an enduring part of Miami’s civic fabric. Their shared backstory illuminates an inner toughness, fueled by gratitude, enabling all three to persist against those long statistical odds.

“We saw our parents struggle,” says Pinecrest manager Yoceyln Galiano, explaining how she saw her blue collar parents make sacrifice after sacrifice. “I get sentimental; it’s a patriotic feeling,” saying her interest in government grew from curiosity about why her family would choose to leave the home country. “You feel gratitude,” she says — a determination to repay the United States.

Cuban born Yolanda Aguilar, from West Miami, has no recollection of her native land, but saw her parents start from scratch in a country with a different language. Starting government work at 24, she never thought she’d be a professional administrator.

Ana Garcia, who leads North Miami Beach, came with her parents as a six year old girl. Her family’s experience, she believes, is connected to the struggle for gender equality, or, as she puts it, “a race we started from the back.”

“But you know what?” she adds. “I wake up every day, and I’m like ‘O my God, here I am, I’m a Cuban refugee, and I am a city manager for one of the top ten cities in Miami-Dade County!”

All three women credit strong mentors — but they also recall growing from some rocky spots along their way to the manager’s chair.

Galiano was once advised to cut her hair short so that “people would take me more seriously.” For Garcia, it was a supervisor who would not empower her — forcing her to simply change jobs. (A silver lining, she now says “led me to have courage.”) But perhaps the stickiest situation confronted Aguilar, who flat out refused a mayor’s orders to reimburse personal phone expenses (he was later convicted of exploiting his official position).

He “took advantage of the fact that I was a female to do things that were not correct,” Aguilar recalls now, saying she was threatened with termination if she didn’t comply. “He would not have done that to a male manager.”

So where did that toughness come from? Aguilar says she’ll never forget strong encouragement from a mentor who pulled her aside just before she was promoted to city manager at age 36. “You are the manager. You have the power. Use it,” the councilman told her. “If you don’t use the power… you will fail.”

For Galiano, the critical, empowering mentorship came from a boss early in her career who allowed her to work on tasks exceeding her pay grade, leading to the drafting of budget documents and grant applications. In turn, it led to positions in nearby municipalities and eventually, a manager’s position.

A mentor, she says, is someone who can spot when an employee “can take extra initiative, and then give them wings.” And what happens next?

“They typically fly,” she says, smiling.

Garcia also found a boss who spotted ability — and let her show her stuff. She moved from parks and recreation to community services, and then, to assistant manager. Garcia’s recollection of her career is filled with sports metaphors from days in varsity softball and volleyball — her love of competition evident. “Having played in teams, I’m a strategist,” she says. “We’re moving like a pack of wolves in the direction of delivering excellence.”

But along with drive, the three managers also think the female contribution—in terms of leadership style­—is also a source of their strength. “We’re judged differently,” says Pinecrest’s Galiano. “But we are a little more humanistic. We have to balance family, so we are more sensitive, more collaborative.”

In West Miami, Aguilar agrees her tone is different from that of her male colleagues. “It’s not ‘my way or the highway,” she says. “When you empower employees,” she says, “you make them better people.”

The three managers see style and tone as playing a big role in countering some of the greatest challenges facing public administrators nationally. For Galiano, the 2017 challenge is clear: lack of public trust in government.

“In the Kennedy years, it was an ‘ask not,’ service-oriented, sign-up-for-the-Peace-Corps attitude.” Now, she says, trust has been eroded, much of it fueled by social media.

“People don’t come to voice their opinion unless you hit them in the pocket,” says Aguilar. “And when you do, you’re often called a thief.” For her, social media has led to the death of real communication — a trend she wants to counter by coaching Millenials, or as she puts it, “future managers in the making.”

“I am a mentor,” adds Garcia, describing work with two University of Miami students from China pursuing a public administration degree. “Hopefully the time they’ve spent with me will give them wisdom and confidence.”

To the aspiring managers-in-waiting, Galiano says public administration remains a strong career choice. She’s already noticing the beginnings of a mass exodus of a generation of experienced managers. But when she has to fill those gaps in the years ahead, she’ll be looking for candidates who can demonstrate something special.

“We got 200 applications for a secretarial position,” she said. “I try to open doors for people, help them make connections,” but says successful candidates will work hard to establish a “professional persona” that makes them special.

“Every day, get to work and be excited about the possibilities that can happen” says Garcia. “You gotta bring it, every single day.”

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