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Top job's allure can't trump her need for a life

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By ALICIA CALDWELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 7, 2001


Eleven-hour days. Six-day work weeks. A good bit of traveling.

Who could blame Gay Lancaster, the interim Pinellas County administrator, for bowing out of the race to become Pinellas' new top administrator?

Lancaster, 54, made public this week her decision that the sacrifice wasn't worth the step up the ladder. She'll keep her second-tier job, thank you very much.

She found she didn't have time to spend with her grandson, or her husband, for that matter. She wasn't getting to work out, except for Saturdays, a time that she has come to jealously guard as she has filled in for Fred Marquis, who retired seven months ago.

So, she sent commissioners a letter this week telling them she had decided not to apply for the county administrator position.

"I want to have a life," she said in a telephone conversation.

The sad part of the story is that this is the kind of person we need in public service -- someone who by all accounts is professionally accomplished, yet has the perspective to realize that work isn't everything.

Think about it: Do you really want a career commando in charge who either doesn't have a family or social life or doesn't care that much about them?

The other regrettable part of her decision is that Pinellas loses a good shot at having its first woman administrator.

Nationwide, only about 12 percent of top administrators of cities and counties are women, said Michele Frisby, spokeswoman for the International City/County Management Association.

Frisby acknowledges that it's a small percentage, though comparable to that in other professions. But it's counterintuitive, she said.

"It's extremely interesting in that the skills that are becoming increasingly important in successfully running a government, communication and consensus-building, are skills that often are associated with women," she said.

I'm sure they're secure enough in their masculinity for me to point out that two long-term administrators in Pinellas -- former St. Petersburg Mayor David Fischer and Dunedin City Manager John Lawrence -- built successful administrations on those traits.

Frisby postulates that the uncertain nature of the job might have something to do with the dearth of women. As a top manager, you have to be prepared to uproot your family on short notice, and that "might not be part of their game plan," she said.

There's also a basic imbalance at work. While professional opportunities for women have expanded in the past few decades, there remain competing social expectations.

Susan Schaeffer, who has been chief judge of the Pinellas-Pasco judicial circuit for six years, decided she didn't want to seek the post again because it was consuming her life. Though she does not have children, she was not seeing friends or getting a chance to pursue her passion -- golf.

Some friends understand why she works such long days; others don't.

"People ask me all the time: Why are you working so hard? I wonder if they would think the same thing if I were a man," Schaeffer said.

Schaeffer said she knows Lancaster to be a hard worker who made an admirable decision in passing on the chance to be county administrator.

"I'm sure she would do an outstanding job and be miserable," Schaeffer said.

Pinellas County Commissioner Barbara Sheen Todd said she encouraged Lancaster to go for the job. But having to pass on going on her grandchildren's field trips, Todd understands all too well why Lancaster would decline.

You have to figure out what your canvas is going to be and then be content to paint on it.

"I still think women expect too much of themselves," Todd said. "It tugs at you."

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