Re-Shaping the BPDA:Women Now Make Up the Majority of Workers at the Agency

March 31, 2017
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By Beth Treffeisen

The Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) formerly the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) was formed in 1957. Throughout the years, this agency has decided in many ways what direction the City should go in by having a tight fingertip on every major development that has come through Boston over the past six decades.

Now, 60 years since this agency has been in power, a tipping point internally has been made, shifting the males versus female employee ratio.

From 2015 to 2017,  the ratio has changed from 46 percent female and 54 percent male to 53 percent female and 47 percent male.

Not only has the workforce been changed, a number of the leadership roles are headed by women too.

This will be the first time in the agency’s history where you have a women in the role of Executive Director / Secretary, Chief of Staff, Director of Planning, Deputy Director of Planning, Director of the Office of Workforce Development, General Counsel, Senior Policy Advisor and Communications Director.

“That’s not just unprecedented for the BPDA, that’s pretty unheard of and frequently unseen in our industry, in the real-estate planning industry.” said Sara Myerson the Director of Planning. “I think it’s very unusual to see not only for this agency but generally what we’re doing in our industry.”

Heather Campisano the Chief of Staff joked, “We just need to take down Brian [Golden the Director of the BPDA], who we’re working on and then we’ll be good.”

Golden said that no matter where you look in the history of this organization or the evolution of the organization you won’t be able to find another period where there has been a majority female workforce.

“When you see who comes in here day-to-day,  a vast majority of time it’s a male majority and very often exclusively men managing long-term development projects,” said Golden. “The female leader in the private sector development world appears to be a complete rarity.”

Myerson believes that it’s incredibly important that not only women’s voices are heard but that they are no different than having a man’s voice or a child’s voice or someone who has lived in the City a few years or someone who has lived in the City for generations.

“You need all those different voices because those are all the people using the City everyday, living in the City everyday and are shaping our community,” said Myerson. “But if you eliminate any of those voices than you are eliminating a portion of the population and maybe not creating the best City for everyone.”

Over last summer, the BPDA went through an organizational transformation brand strategy exercise, where the agency changed its name and made it clear that they want to make the agency more transparent, community driven, and open to new ideas.

Internally, this has altered the way things are done. Myerson said that there is more of a focus on the culture and collaboration that hasn’t always existed within the agency.

“It’s good to have that focus to break down silos between teams and also working to create that feeling of teamwork and corroboratively and corroboration between teams that I think have resulted in better results for the City,” said Myerson.

Sonal Gandhi the Senior Policy Advisor said that following the audit review in 2014 the agency started to look at how to get the best people in the right place for the best roles and then asking, “how do we take that and leverage that for the best agency for the City.”

Golden said that when they now look at hiring or promotions they want that leadership to exhibit a certain balance and there is a certain degree of deliberateness that goes into deciding who is right for the job. Part of that focus is on equity and gender but he said, “I think we can all say that we are very content and happy that it is what it is today.”

Now that the leadership roles have been changed, Gandhi said it is now about bringing to life new ways of collaborating both internally but also outwards into the City.

“The key kind of mantra ‘be transparent, be innovative, be collaborative’ all of those words are great words but then how do you bring them to life and how do you make them have real meaning?” said Gandhi. “We’re seeing that happen, which is beneficial to all of our staff but also to the people of Boston.”

Overall the structure of the agency has changed throughout the years too. When it first started the agency had about 900 employees and now it’s down to 232 employees. The change Golden said has a lot to do with the number of administrative assistants that the organization used to have.

Today, computers can do most of the work and employees can answer their own phones.

Bonnie McGilpin the Director of Communications said that it is hard to compare numbers from the start of the organization to now because the administrative assistants were largely made up of a female workforce.

“I think there’s a lot of staff empowerment now that didn’t exist. It was very top down for many years – again not that had to do with male dominate, but perhaps it might be,” said Campisano. “I think that’s taken the staff a lot to get comfortable with because you’re so used to being told what to do at every turn.”

She continued by saying many employees are still getting used to the idea of making their own decisions and than going on to execute those decisions because that’s why they were hired.

Campisano said, “I think that’s going to take a little time but it’s certainly not far away.”

Looking to the future, Gandhi pointed to the model room as a way to get students from the Boston Public Schools and nearby colleges into the BPDA and get a glimpse on what it takes to plan a city.

Myerson said that overall, the agency relies heavily on community participation to help shape their work inside. By showing students how to be civically involved, both in a planning role but also as a community member she said is really beneficial ultimately to the City.

Overall, Gandhi said that it is important to show young people how the agency analyzes these new developments and how they work with them overall.

“It would be interesting to see how the agency has transformed over time and could compare maybe years down the road at this point of time to later,” said Campisano.

She continued by saying that many of the women here have already been at the agency for several years, including herself for 17 years, which may play into why she has seen such great improvements for a number of different reasons.

“I think the agency is at the best point it has ever been,” said Campisano.

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