Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Celebrating Oxford, Lafayette Leaders on ‘Women’s Equality Day’

By Alyssa Schnugg
News editor

Mayor Robyn Tannehill was sworn into office in June 2017.
Photo by Steven Gagliano

In 1973, the U.S. Congress designated August 26 as “Women’s Equality Day,” to commemorate the 1920 certification of the 19th amendment to the Constitution that gave women the right to vote. It calls attention to the continuing efforts toward full equality in the workplace.

In the Oxford/Lafayette County community, women have certainly made their mark as business owners and CEOs, as well as in local government.

The city of Oxford currently is headed up by Mayor Robyn Tannehill. There are two female aldermen on the Board of Aldermen — Janice Antonow and Kesha Howell-Atkinson.

While Lafayette County has never had a female Supervisor, several have run for the position in recent elections. However, the County Administrator Lisa Carwyle runs the day-to-day business of the county.

The University of Mississippi has not yet had a female as chancellor, but several women hold other titles such as provost and dean.

We could do better

Jaime Harker, English professor and director of the Sarah Isom Center for Women and Gender Studies says that while women have made strides in gaining equality, more can be done.

“As a baseline, let’s look at universities in the state of Mississippi,” she said. “How many presidents or chancellors are women? How many provosts and vice-chancellors? How many deans? How many chairs? The numbers get smaller the higher up in the organization you go, and this continues to be true in a wide range of fields.”

Harker said that to continue to pave the way for equality, the first step is to be aware there is still a continuing problem.

“Being sure that we are mentoring women, reaching out to provide opportunities, encouraging them to apply, and being sure to have a diverse pool of candidates, interviewees, and finalists is a good start,” she said.

A progressive city

The city of Oxford has five female department heads, some in positions traditionally held by men, like city engineer Reanna Mayoral.

Mayoral went to work for the Mississippi Department of Transportation in a construction project office after graduating from Ole Miss. During her 11 years at MDOT, she worked as an engineer intern, supervised a project office and worked in the district office as the assistant preconstruction engineer, preconstruction engineer and special project engineer.

“I came to work for the city (of Oxford) as the assistant city engineer in 2011 and was promoted to city engineer in 2018,” Mayoral told Hottytoddy.com.

When she started working for MDOT, she was the only female engineer working in construction inspection in the district.

“There were other female engineers throughout the state in the various districts and divisions at MDOT, which was encouraging as a young engineer new to the workforce,” she said. “There were a number of what I consider ‘powerhouse’ engineers, who just happened to be female, that paved the way for me and many others through their demonstrated knowledge, ability, resilience and character, including MDOT Executive Director Melinda McGrath to name just one.”

Mayoral said she believes the number of female engineers will continue to grow as schools continue to develop and promote STEM education.

“Engineering can seem intimidating until you have been exposed to the basic concept that engineers are simply problem solvers,” she said.

Being a woman in the world of engineering has often provided Mayoral with some amusing moments.

“If I am on a site with any male, people who haven’t worked with me will address questions/comments to the male standing with me,” she said. “They are always red-faced when they are told ‘Ask her’. I have answered the phone more than once and been told ‘No, I was on hold for the city engineer.’”

However, despite those moments, Mayoral said most people along her career journey have been supportive and treated her with respect.

“They saw me as an engineer who happened to be female and worked with me accordingly,” she said. “I was trained by some of the best and they never treated me differently because I was female.”

Amberlynn Liles is the superintendent of Oxford Environmental Services.
Photo provided

A man’s world

Amberlynn Liles is the Superintendent of Environmental Services – which is the solid waste department, the people who pick-up trash. It’s a field where few women are found, but that seems to be changing, Liles said.

“The solid waste industry is a male-dominated field,” she said. “However, over the past three years, I’ve seen more women enter the solid waste industry, especially in Mississippi.”

Liles was hired as the assistant environmental services director in 2012 and then promoted to superintendent in 2014. She served as the recycling coordinator for the city of Oxford for 11 years, from 2001-2012. She is also an Ole Miss graduate, earning her bachelor’s degree in family and consumer science in 2001.

Finding a woman at the head of solid waste in Oxford, though, is not that surprising.

“The city of Oxford is very progressive in hiring women in higher management,” Lile said. “Look at our City Clerk and Tax Office lead by Ashley Atkinson, our Court led by Donna Fisher, our City Engineer led by Reanna Mayoral and recently retired Planner Judy Daniel, all smart successful leaders. We are all successful with the support we receive from the top, our Mayor, Robyn Tannehill. She’s got our back.”

When asked what challenges she faces being a woman in the solid waste industry, Liles replied with the same sense of humor that gets her through the more trying days.

“It’s a man’s world,” she said. “Every day is a challenge.”

Having a voice

City Clerk Ashley Atkinson has lived in Oxford for most of her life, graduating from Lafayette High School. She then attended Northwest Mississippi Community College, and later Ole Miss, where she majored in accounting, banking and finance.

She worked for FNB bank for several years before being hired in 1997 as an accounts payable clerk by former City Clerk Virginia Chrestman. She left the city in 2002 to work as a bookkeeper at Lafayette High School, but returned to work for the city in 2004 for then-City Clerk Lisa Carwyle. In 2016, she was hired as City Clerk when Carwyle left to become the County Administrator for Lafayette County.

Atkinson said her biggest challenge is making sure her voice is heard and letting people know that after 20 years in the field of accounting, she knows what’s talking about.

“Oxford is fairly progressive when it comes to women in upper management positions,” she said. “We have a variety of different businesses here who are either owned or run by women or who have women in executive positions.”

Running the financial side of a city takes a variety of skills, from multi-tasking to managing different personalities, she said. Atkinson feels that women are generally better at those skills.

“We do the majority of managing households, children and jobs; and the City Clerk’s job is definitely one where each day is a little different with multiple tasks that need to be completed and people constantly needing feedback on different issues,” she said.

Uniquely equipped

Since Oxford became Oxford in the mid-1800s, there have been two female mayors – the late Pat Lamar and the current mayor, Robyn Tannehill.

Also an Ole Miss graduate, Tannehill was elected as mayor in 2017 after serving one, four-year term as an alderman.

Prior to entering politics, she served as the assistant director of the Oxford-Lafayette County Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Foundation, and later as the executive director of the Oxford Tourism Council where she and her team organized the first Double Decker Arts Festival 25 years ago. In 1998, she opened a marketing, advertising and public relations firm, The Tannehill Agency. Two years later she sold that business to a larger regional marketing firm, The Godwin Group, and continued to serve there as a Senior Vice President. In 2002, she made the decision to become a full-time mother and community volunteer until throwing her hat into the Aldermen race in 2013.

“I do believe the Oxford business community is progressive,” Tannehill said. “We have many businesses across our community-owned and managed by women. I think for a town our size in Mississippi, this is progressive.”

Tannehill said there are challenges in being a mayor, regardless of gender; however, she believes women are “uniquely equipped to multi-task and deal with issues with compassion.”

“I have been asked often about what it is like to be a female mayor as opposed to a male mayor,” she said. “I always answer, “I’m not sure. This is the only kind I’ve been.’”

She said she hopes more women enter the world of politics on all levels.

“America desperately needs a new breed of politician,” she said. “People who understand what it is to serve, not to be served. I believe women are well suited and well equipped for this.”

Running a county

County Administrator Lisa Carwyle has helped guide the city of Oxford and Lafayette County financially, and has witnessed the continuous growth of both.

Carwyle, a LHS graduate, earned her bachelor’s degree in accounting at Ole Miss in 1995. She worked as an accountant for the Oxford Electric Department and earned her master’s degree in accountancy in 1999. She was promoted to City Clerk in Oxford in 2003, where she worked for 13 years until moving over to the county in 2016 as County Administrator.

According to Carwyle, close to 50% of the city and county administrators in Mississippi are women. In Lafayette County, women also hold several department head positions, including Tax Assessor/Collector Sylvia Baker and Chancery Court Clerk Sherry Wall.

County Administrator Lisa Carwyle, far left, helps run the day-to-day operations of the county.
Photo by Alyssa Schnugg

“I do think Lafayette County is more progressive than other counties to women in management positions,” she said. “I was given this opportunity without any hesitation to a woman being County Administrator. I’ve managed the construction of our new buildings and other job duties that some may think are not a job for a woman, but I’ve not been met with any resistance. My dad was a contractor for years, so I credit his influence in my life to my ability to understand and add something to the conversation related to construction.”

She said being a woman in her position has allowed her to negotiate and problem-solve well with a traditionally male Board of Supervisors.

“I appreciate the opportunity to work as a team with the Board of Supervisors to create solutions for problems and provide services that are most beneficial to Lafayette County citizens,” she said.