A woman's place is...wherever she wants to be

Susan M. Hann, P.E., AICP
Deputy City Manager
City of Palm Bay, Florida
Chair, APWA Leadership and Management Committee

I've never been too excited about the "Women in (fill in the blank)" groups, meetings, seminars, etc. I have always believed that success is hugely dependent on attitude, especially a willingness to see opportunities that are sometimes disguised as challenges.

The folks who've read my previous contributions to the APWA Reporter will note yet another sports analogy coming their way. I exercise every day. That's the commitment I make to myself. It keeps me healthy and relatively sane in a job with constant pressures, challenges and just general craziness.

In order to meet this commitment, I plan my exercise routine several days in advance. I have a loosely-formed weekly routine where I usually try to get my exercise in before work just in case the day gets away from me. However, meetings, plane trips and other things sometimes get in my way.

So what's the response when life interrupts the plan?

If it's raining outside, I have a few options—lay in bed an extra hour and obsess about "life isn't fair," make a commitment to exercise at lunch or after work instead or just get up and bike in the rain. Well, my husband and coworkers are quite sure I'm not made of sugar, and, therefore, I won't melt in rainy weather. So, most of the time, I just get up and go. Although the first minute or two is usually miserable, a ride in the pouring rain almost always turns out to be more fun, more adventure and the basis of a good story to share with all of my friends who think I'm crazy anyway.

If I have to travel, I pack my running shoes and check out the workout options at my destination before I ever leave home. No, I don't like to run every day, but I do it because it's important and it forces me to do something I know I can do—even though I don't want to.

So what's the point of this diatribe? The point is: If you want to achieve success, develop a plan to get there and commit yourself to your goals. Preparation, focus and dedication will take you along a path in the direction you want to go. Challenges and setbacks are just part of the journey. Excuses are just self-imposed roadblocks to meeting your goals.

So when Ann Daniels, APWA Director of Technical Services and Staffer Extraordinaire, told me she was planning a "Women in Public Works" event at Congress, I was a little skeptical. Over the years, I've come across these "Women in X" events where the main topic of conversation is "How I didn't get what I wanted out of life because I'm a woman and men are horrible." I'm not too sympathetic to this point of view, as I rarely accept excuses as a legitimate reason for lack of happiness. So I was curious to see how this event would play out at Congress.

Well, about 70 women and 2 men (but who's counting) showed up in what was very close to a standing-room-only crowd to talk about women in public works. But the most fascinating thing to me is that we rarely talked about "women in public works"—we just talked about "public works." We discussed leadership and management, two of my favorite topics. We had an excellent exchange of information between those newer to the field and those more seasoned veterans. We networked and we learned. The group included attorneys, heavy equipment operators, fleet managers, public works directors, consultants, engineers and many other folks who were eager to learn from each other. This event was a conversation that any gender would have found educational, informative and interesting.

One of the more interesting (at least to me) conversation threads centered around the "good old boy" network. Although traditionally an "older male" sort of phenomenon, the reality is that the "good old boy" system is just a power-structure network that is not always accessible to all. These days, the "good old boy" system might just include a few women. So, as public works professionals move up into managerial and leadership positions, they (regardless of gender) should do some routine self-assessment to make sure they are not perpetuating the exclusive power structure they previously criticized. The "good old boy" network is clearly visible from the bottom, but can be quite transparent from the top!

Other topics included mentoring, networking, creating flexibility in the workplace, encouraging students to enter the public works field, rising above gossip and escaping stereotypes. These are all legitimate issues for most people in any profession, so I was especially encouraged that the cross section of public works professionals who attended the inaugural "Women in Public Works" Congress event were so enthusiastic about developing a network of friends and business associates that will help them throughout their careers.

The Leadership and Management Committee and the Diversity Committee are now working together to plan events for the 2006 Congress. These are not "Women Only" events, but activities that will offer APWA members opportunities to hear from successful women in the profession and to meet other public works professionals who can offer career guidance and problem-solving assistance.

Also on deck for the 2006 Congress is a renewed emphasis on the Emerging Leader program. This group of 70 women and 2 men clearly showed that there is a demand for mentorship in the profession. If you don't know about the Emerging Leader program, it is designed to pair up those new to the public works profession and those who have gained wisdom through experience. The Emerging Leader and mentor spend some time together at Congress events and also take part in educational sessions designed specifically for participants.

So if you're planning to attend Congress next year and you'd like to participate in the Emerging Leader mentoring program, please e-mail me your name and contact information. If you're new to the profession and would like to spend some time with a "seasoned" veteran, make sure to get in touch with me or Ann Daniels at APWA. The Leadership and Management Committee will also be working with Ann to facilitate additional improvements to the program and the schedule for the 2006 Congress.

As evidenced by the crowd that attended the 2005 Congress "Women in Public Works" event, there are some outstanding women in public works. But more importantly, there are outstanding people in public works. Gender is not a qualifier or disqualifier for great public service.

So if you're a woman in public works or if you're anyone else in public works, set your goals and head towards them with solid determination. No excuses. Your community will be so much better because of you!

p.s. Go ride your bike.

Sue Hann can be reached at (321) 952-3413 or hanns@palmbayflorida.org.