Before Annise Parker was Houston’s revered city councilwoman, city controller, three-term mayor, champion of LGBT rights and all-around glass ceiling breaker, she was a shy merit scholar and Rice University student who, after graduating in 1978, accepted her first job in the male-dominated oil and gas industry. Parker knew she wanted to work, save money and eventually attend graduate school, not realizing that her first boss-turned-female mentor would change the course of her life.
“I had a triple major in social sciences: anthropology, psychology and sociology—you know, really great for getting a job,” Parker laughs. “At the time, 80 percent of Houston’s economy was oil and gas, so I went to work for the only woman manager in a Fortune 500 company, Toby Turner.”
Turner, who worked in information services at Texas Gulf Oil and Gas, often hired women graduates from Rice, including Parker. During the late ’70s, desktop computers, still a rarity, slowly began appearing across many businesses and industries. The problem: no one knew how to work the machines.
“I volunteered to learn specific software programs for the oil and gas industry, spending the next 20 years accidentally riding the tech wave,” says Parker. “The fact that Mrs. Turner selected me to do it, supported my training, and allowed me to use my knowledge within the company was a game changer.”
Besides providing pivotal professional mentoring, Turner also supported Parker outside the office. In 1979, Parker was involved in an abusive relationship, which included her domestic partner at the time showing up at the office and assaulting her in a stairwell.
“[Turner] moved me into her garage apartment until I found a place of my own, came with me to meet the district attorney to file charges and stared down the company, who wanted to fire me since, at the time, [the incident] was considered disruptive, especially being between two lesbians,” shares Parker. “I only worked for the company for two years, but she had a profound impact on my life, both professionally and personally.”
While Turner’s guidance was a game changer for Parker’s professional development and career, she notes that her first, and most influential, mentors were at home.
“I come from a strong line of working women,” shares Parker. “Both my mother and grandmother are college graduates and worked outside of the home. The expectation always was that I’d get the best education so that I could support myself and contribute to the support of my family.”
Parker’s maternal grandmother was born in 1899, and started teaching school when she was 16 years old so she could afford to put herself through college. “Even during my time as mayor, when I was making decisions, I’d often ask myself, 'What would my grandmother think?'” Her mother had her during high school, but eventually went back to school, graduated, and put herself through college as a single mom.
“These were the strong women who shaped who I am,” says Parker.
Parker took these mentors, whether at home or on the job, to heart, emulating their examples during her career as a public servant.
“As mayor, I consciously mentored. I knew I was a role model, both for the LGBT community, but also as a woman,” Parker says. “For the women on my staff, I’d formally match younger managers with more senior women managers to support each other. For the younger women on my staff, I’d spend one-on-one time and take off my ‘I’m the Mayor/Boss’ hat and try to have more woman-to-woman conversations.”
Parker retired her “Mayor Hat” in 2016, but remains active throughout Houston as a co-chair of the International Women's Forum, which will be hosting the IWF World Leadership Conference in Houston this October, as well as a board member of the Houston Zoo, Holocaust Museum, Trees for Houston and many others. And when she and wife Kathy Hubbard marched with fellow Houstonians during the Women’s March in January, she was amazed by the number—and ages—of attendees.
“I was absolutely blown away by how many people were there. I was reinvigorated and excited," Parker shares. "There were so many young women. I thought, similar to what was said from the stage, ‘I’ve been doing this for 40 years. Thank God you’re here—we can pass the torch to you.’”