Women rising in the public works field

Kristy R. Crisp
Stormwater Public Educator
City of Gastonia, North Carolina

For businesses, industries and municipalities, addressing issues concerning diversity has become a driving force for success in the twenty-first century. Many professional organizations have had a strong voice over the last thirty years regarding the representation of diversity in their respective fields. With an increasingly diverse client or customer base, professional organizations have pushed these fields to reflect the diversity in their communities. Specifically, many organizations have been formed to promote the acceptance of women into the science and engineering fields. With this push, women have made great strides in the public works field, showing up on construction projects and field crews, and managing engineering departments and businesses. However, there is still much room for growth.

For years, myths and stereotypes have kept women out of the public works field. According to the National Academy of Engineering, some of these myths include the following:

  1. Girls are not as good at science as boys.
  2. Girls do not prefer technology.
  3. Women cannot be successful in engineering fields.

While all of these myths are false, they have been cultivated in our culture and have made it difficult for females to pursue careers in engineering. Increased awareness about stereotypes has led to mentoring programs for young women interested in engineering and to efforts that bring engineering into elementary through high school classrooms. The goal is that by seeing successful women in public works, young women realize that these doors remain open to them rather than seeing them closed because of stereotypes.

Are these educational efforts paying off by leading more women to obtain engineering and other technical degrees and later to move on to successful careers in public works? Statistics do show that there has been a rise in the number of women obtaining engineering degrees, as well as those entering the professional workforce. The National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering lists the composition of women in the engineering workforce at 10% as of 2003, up from 6% in the 1980s.

Women can now be seen in all areas of public works across the United States. They are now heading up public works departments, becoming city engineers, and occupying positions traditionally thought of as "a man's job." This impact by women is evident not just in areas of the United States considered liberal. The City of Gastonia is located in the Piedmont of North Carolina, an area usually characterized as traditional. There are, however, women employed in many aspects of its municipal Public Works and Engineering Departments. Holding what many would perceive as a "man's job" has never stopped Michelle Broome, who has worked for the City of Gastonia's Engineering Department for over 25 years, 19 of which as a Construction Inspector. She is not alone. Out in the field she has encountered more women in construction and engineering jobs, many more than the two women that were studying civil engineering with her in school. Other women also employed in Public Works and Engineering for the City of Gastonia echo this same type of positive story.

What advantages are presented to a public works employer who makes an extra effort to ensure that diversity, both in women and other minorities, is present in the workforce? Workforce diversity brings more creativity which, in turn, can lead to more effective problem-solving strategies. When working as a team for a common goal, we bring with us our differing backgrounds, cultures, and personalities. These differences bring new ideas about tackling a design or installation. The next time you sit down for a design meeting or plan review, notice the diversity around you. It is important for us to ensure that our community's diversity is reflected in our workforce.

Kristy Crisp can be reached at (704) 869-1063 or kristyc@cityofgastonia.com.

The APWA Diversity Committee is launching a focus on "Women in Public Works." This is the first in a series of proposed articles spotlighting the achievements of women in public works careers. Articles will be included from different authors contributing their perspectives to this important topic. Keep an eye out for further articles to come.