Why Commissioner Russell wants to make the City code gender neutral

Leah Weston, City of Miami Commissioner Ken Russell’s policy director, was reading the city code one day when she noticed something: male pronouns, everywhere.

“I was particularly studying the section of the powers and duties of the city attorney and I noticed that all the pronouns used were male, which was very striking to me because our city attorney is a woman… and she’s the only woman sitting up there [on the dais],” Weston recalls. (This is the section of the code Weston was reading.)

It struck her as something that obviously needed to be updated for the 21st century.

Around the same time, Russell was eating with his children one day at Grove Bay Grill (better known by its old name, Scotty’s) when his four-year-old daughter asked, “Daddy, where’s your office?”

He pointed across the water to City Hall, indicating the ground floor, where the city commission works, and then to the top floor. “That’s the mayor’s office,” he said.

Maybe someday you can be mayor, he told her.

“No, only boys can be mayor,” she replied.

That’s a story Russell tells when he talks about why he’s sponsoring a bill (spurred by Weston’s idea) to make the City of Miami Code of Ordinances – the document that lays out city’s laws – gender neutral. The first reading of the bill is happening tomorrow.[infobox_default_shortcode title=”” text=”The first reading of the bill will be 10 a.m. on Thursday, March 23, at City of Miami City Hall at 3500 Pan American Drive if you want to follow along.” img=”” color=”142, 201, 200, 0.1″]

“Of course my daughter didn’t read the code, but somewhere she was told the mayor can only be a man. Our code shouldn’t reinforce this,” Russell says. “Words mean something and they do have an impact.”

When Weston brought the gendered language issue up with Deputy City Attorney Barnaby Min, he ran with it and determined that it would actually be a pretty easy fix. The team decided to bring it to the floor during women’s history month because it was the perfect time to make sure a woman’s place in government was cemented locally.

What does gender neutralizing the code look like? Things like changing “fireman” to “firefighter” and “chairman” to chairperson. You can see the full list of wording changes here.

“This isn’t like moving the needle on some big gender equality issue, but I will say that language has meaning and that any opportunity we have to remove bias from our language is progress,” Weston says. “There’s research on how language reaffirms our ideas about gender… I imagine some little girl in the future… who encounters our code and will no longer have any preconceived notions” about what positions women can hold.

“The next task will be taking on bigger gender equality issues… those are a lot harder than changing your city code,” she adds.

There’s one thing that they’re still stumbling over, though, Russell says: trying to figure out how to make “manhole” gender neutral. If you’ve got an idea, let us know in the comments and we’ll pass it on.