Massachusetts Climate Chief Melissa Hoffer discusses her experiences as a woman in law and government during the Women Elected Municipal Officials Leadership Luncheon on Jan. 19.

Massachusetts Climate Chief Melissa Hoffer inspired attendees of the Women Elected Municipal Officials Leadership Luncheon on Jan. 19 with reflections on the gender-based challenges women face professionally, her lifelong passion for understanding the relationship between nature and society, and her professional path.

In a fireside chat with WEMO Vice Chair and Ashland Select Board Member Yolanda Greaves during the MMA Annual Meeting & Trade Show in Boston, Hoffer reflected on beginning her work as a teacher before going to law school, entering private practice and then moving on to the public sector, where she’s now serving as the first state-level climate chief in the country.

A native of Pennsylvania, who came to Massachusetts to attend Hampshire College (followed by the University of Massachusetts and Northeastern University School of Law), Hoffer moved to California in the 1990s to work as a substitute teacher at a school located at a residential drug treatment center.

“What I learned working with those kids [was] … by the time they were teenagers and they were in that kind of a setting, the structural racism that they faced — many were kids of color but not all — the classism, it was going to be very, very hard, even at that young age, for those kids to be able to make a life and have a good quality of life,” Hoffer said. “So that got me thinking much more about structural ways that I might be able to work that would be more effective, and that’s what got me interested in law.”

In law school, Hoffer retained an interest in the intersection between racism, misogyny and environmental degradation, and how they relate to economic systems, and ways those patterns could be shifted. In her first job in private practice, at WilmerHale in Boston, Hoffer was part of a team that represented six Algerian-Bosnian detainees who were being held without charges at Guantanamo Bay. All six were eventually released.

In her career, she has encountered or witnessed gender-related challenges and inappropriate behavior. She described two particular offensive encounters with male bosses, one of which led her to contact a mentor for advice.

“These things are complicated,” she said. “I liked both of those men and I learned things from them,” but what happened “was 100% inappropriate, so this is what makes these things hard to deal with.”

“I think we need to talk to each other as women more about these things,” she said, “and we need to talk to young women about it and prepare each other more with strategies for dealing with it.”

Hoffer described how she has handled inappropriate behavior with male colleagues. In one case, she confronted a man, who yelled at her on a conference call with other female colleagues, which ended the behavior. Another time, a man repeatedly interrupted her and talked over her while her boss was in the room, so she kept talking and increased her volume until he stopped.

“My boss thought it was great,” she said. “Male allies are so important. I’m looking at the men in this audience, and I know many of you are strong allies for us, and I really appreciate it.”

Hoffer discussed emotion-based biases faced by women, referencing her own experience and studies done by Arizona State University in the 2000s.

“We all have emotions,” she said. “We all bring our whole selves to work. So why being emotional is something that’s disparaging is a question for me.”

Hoffer offered strategies for dealing with workplace issues like having ideas stolen without being credited, being “mansplained” on a topic you’re knowledgeable in, and seeing other women reinforce sexism in the workplace. She said women need to support each other, and not be afraid of being labeled “bossy” or “difficult.”

She said it’s vital to have other women to turn to as sounding boards, and described her “trusted board of directors” — a group of women friends in different professions she’s known for 30 years.

“One of those women is in her 80s now and regularly tells me … that sexism is a socio, political and economic construct, so, ‘You can’t go fix it by yourself. Take that off your shoulders, put it down, you do your best.’ And I think that’s really good advice.”

Hoffer discussed “imposter syndrome,” and how hers was amplified by her class background. She urged women to help build each other’s confidence.

She said “work-life balance” is one of the “more damaging concepts for women,” calling it an “elusive, evasive ideal” targeted toward women.

“In 2024, women are still statistically much more likely to have more responsibilities at home, and that’s extra true if you’re a parent. So rather than focus on the social or political solutions, the responsibility [is placed] back on the woman to figure out the problem. … And it’s usually like, ‘Do more yoga,’ and I love yoga, but you can’t sun salutation your way out of this.

“I would just say give yourself a break, let it go, and just do your best.”

Hoffer talked about how her experiences and background inform her climate work.

“You can see the world changing around us,” she said. “It touches everything … from national security to food security to health to transportation to public safety. … I feel extremely committed to dealing with it because I’m worried about the continuity of our social organizations as a result of the disruption that will happen.”

Interest in the WEMO group has been growing, along with the number of women serving in elected positions across the Commonwealth. In addition to the Leadership Luncheon in January, the group holds a spring symposium and a fall Leadership Conference.

At the luncheon, WEMO inducted its 2024 leadership board, including incoming chair and Gloucester Councillor Valerie Gilman.

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