SAN FRANCISCO — Even here in America's queenmaker district - this bastion of the women's rights movement and the home of Sen. Dianne Feinstein and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi - it was a bold move.
Within two weeks of his inauguration last month, Mayor Gavin Newsom named women to four of the most influential posts in the city: one to act as a top adviser and virtual vice-mayor, another to replace him on the Board of Supervisors, and two others to become the city's new police and fire chiefs.
For a city of firsts, it was one more - the first time any major city had selected women to run both its police and fire departments. Nationwide, the moves were characterized as "monumental" and "unheard of."
To be sure, it was a portentous moment, as women seek to break into predominantly male strongholds. But the appointments - together with the election of a new female district attorney last fall - also raised the subtler question of whether women change what government does, and how it gets done.
Many experts say they do. While noting that generalities are just that, they suggest women leaders set a different tone and style from men. Whether it's a greater attachment to issues of social justice or a deeper interest in process - not just results - women often bring a distinct sensibility to board rooms, city halls, and police precincts. As a result, San Francisco may become a proving ground for how male-dominated institutions adapt.
"You'll see some testing of the waters," says Carol Hardy-Fanta, director of the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. But "California is a little at the front of the pack as far as being accepting of the fact that women can lead."
There is evidence that more parts of the US are becoming comfortable with that idea. Boston's mayor recently named a woman to head the police department, bringing the number of big-city female police chiefs to five.
"This is the first time we have had women in major departments," says Margaret Moore of the National Center for Women and Policing in Arlington, Va.
In some respects, though, women leaders are old news in San Francisco. Though eight of 11 members of the Board of Supervisors are now men, women held a 6-to-5 majority eight years ago. Supervisor Tom Ammiano is the only survivor from those days, and he notes a clear difference in how the board functions now.
"Men tend to bluster," he says. What struck him about the women was "how much homework they do. How prepared they are. They usually went about things in a more thorough way."
He recalls an instance when some women on the board were making the case that the city's services favored boys over girls. "It became quite a bit of a floor fight, but they had their statistics," he says.
To some, the incident speaks to a basic difference between men and women in government: decisionmaking. "Men tend to want to get at the problem directly, while women are much more likely to be interested in how you do it," says Judy Rosener of the University of California at Irvine's Graduate School of Management. "Women tend to be as concerned about the process as the outcome."
Supervisor Sophie Maxwell sees some of that in herself. "I'm aggressive, but in a very different way," she says. "I'm like water, calm on the surface, but underneath doing its due diligence ... the constant drip, drip, drip, that can go through metal."
Like many others, she says that each style has its benefits and weaknesses, making a mix ideal. For his part, Mr. Newsom says his appointees are simply the best people for their jobs, and many observers agree. Even so, they add, the fact that they're women brings unique benefits both to a mayor seeking to create his own legacy and to fire and police departments ensnared in scandal.
San Francisco's police department is only now emerging from an incident that resulted in the indictment of several officers on charges of assault, allegedly for beating up someone for his fajita. Meanwhile, the fire department, which hired its first woman firefighter only 17 years ago, has been hit by recent allegations of sexual harassment.
Yet women have also long fulfilled the role of pure reformers. Still underrepresented in many levels of government, many women have cultivated a mantle of the political outsider. For a mayor seeking to distance himself from the charges of cronyism that hounded his predecessor and mentor, Willie Brown, women appointees instantly lent Newsom that outsider status. And for two departments in disarray, they made a strong statement.
"It was a statement that he was not going to be governing the way of the old regime," says Corey Cook, a political scientist at San Francisco State University. "It opens up the administration to women in a way we haven't seen before."