The former Mayor of Houston, Annise Parker, visited Sam Houston State University to give a lecture on women in leadership last Thursday. The event concluded Women’s History Month.
Parker’s lecture focused on her time as a politician and her tips for success in politics as a women. She also elaborates on her time as mayor and the struggles that came with the position.
Parker recalls her first few days after she was elected into office and the attention she received from the media.
“It made worldwide media coverage. The headlines were a combination of Houston elects lesbian mayor,” said Parker. “There was a little bit about how did this happen in Houston? Isn’t Houston a very conservative place?”
Parker was the first openly gay mayor of a major city and is proud that this is something that happened in Texas.
Additionally, she points out that she is 1 of eleven women to lead a major city.
“I was the first openly gay lesbian mayor of a major city but I was the tenth women to lead a major American city. Right now number eleven is in office,” said Parker. “Of the eleven women to have led top ten U.S. cities, six of us led Texas cities.”
Parker finds it appalling that only eleven women have led major American cities and she thinks that this impacts the way that politics work in America.
“Women in legislatures and other elective bodies at various levels, the percentage tends to top out in the low twenties. Women in executive positions such as mayor’s, governors, I think there are only 4 women governors at the moment, tend to be in single digits,” said Parker. “This is something that we all have a responsibility to work on and it definitely has an impact on the way we live, the way we view politics, and the way politics works for us in America.”
According to Parker there are reasons that women in Texas have been successful in higher political roles than in other states. She believes that the Texan mindset helps when it comes to electing women into leadership positions.
“I think there are some reasons why women have been more successful in some of these higher level political roles in Texas. One is I think there is still a little bit of a frontier attitude in Texas,” said Parker. “It is about what you can do rather than who you are and what you bring to the table rather than, what we say in the south, who your people are.”
Parker stresses the need for more women in both politics and other leadership roles.
“We need more women in leadership. Women approach problems differently. We bring different experiences to tackling problems. We aren’t better or worse at solving problems we just come at it from a different angle,” said Parker.
The reason that there is a lack of women in both politics and other leadership positions is due to women holding themselves back and not jumping into those roles.
“A lot of times we don’t get ourselves into the position to be decision-makers. Too often women are waiting on the sidelines to be asked. Men jump into leadership roles,” said Parker. “I will confess the first time I ran for office I was invited. I was recruited, I was encouraged to run. I ran in a city council race back in 1991 and I lost.”
Parker believes that women and men react differently when losing a race. She admits that she is guilty of the same reaction when she lost in 1991.
“Here is the next thing that women tend to do. When men lose a political race they say something like ‘What was wrong with them?’ When women lose a political race they say ‘What was wrong with me?’” said Parker. “I did that. After I lost that race I curled up in a fetal position for a while and I said I hated campaigning. I hated it all and I said I am never going to do this again. It was an awful experience and I am just going to stop.”
Parker said that competition is key to getting women into leadership roles. Competition teaches women how to lose, strategize and plan.
“Competition teaches us how to lose. That you can’t win every time and to get back up,” said Parker. “Competition also teaches us how to think strategically and how to plan. It usually teaches us discipline and then finally competition teaches us how to examine our performance, to pick it apart and to do better next time.”
Over the years Parker said that she has learned that there are 3 essential leadership skills needed for anyone to succeed in politics.
“One of the things I have learned out of what is now eleven political campaigns, that there are essential leadership skills. The 3 essential leadership skills are courage, communication and commitment,” said Parker.
A certain amount of courage is needed to be a good leader according to Parker.
“If nothing in your life scares you, you probably aren’t doing enough. You probably aren’t pushing yourself enough,” said Parker. “If nothing you do challenges you, you may be very comfortable and you may be perfectly happy with that but if you want to make a difference in the world you have to take yourself right to the edge of where you think you can go and take one more step.”
Parker stresses the importance of good communication skills when going into politics or any other leadership positions. She points out that communication is key to gathering a following.
“Communication is critical in politics but it’s very important in almost everything else we do. It is certainly important to those of you that are in class now. You got to be able to articulate your ideas, you have to be able to express them verbally and in writing to your professors. It doesn’t get any less important as you go on in life,” said Parker. “If you want to move into leadership roles, communication has multiple facets. Individual action is individual action. I can stand up and do many important things as an individual but if I want to lead I have to have followers. I have to have people who will go with me.”
In addition to having followers and supporters there will be people who disagree. Parker said that it is important to be able to move past those negative and unhappy voices and continue to lead.
“The other level of communication for a leader, this is particularly important for everyone, is that you also have to have the positive inner dialogue. You have to be able to tune out the negative voices,” said Parker.
Parker encourages women to never give up and to continue to reach their goals.
“There are always going to be setbacks. You’re always going to fail. You have to get up and keep at it however long it takes to achieve your goals,” said Parker.
Parker reflects on her time as the Mayor of Houston. She takes pride in the fact that she has influenced many young women during her time in office.
“To be able to see young women who think that it is absolutely the right thing that mayors are women, that leaders are women and that yeah maybe it is okay if little boys are mayors too but they haven’t ever seen one,” said Parker. “That is the coolest thing in the world.”