Public Works DIVAs: Dynamic, Intelligent, Victorious, Accomplished

Four women tell how they "made it" in the public works profession

Cora Jackson Fossett
Director, Public Affairs Office
Department of Public Works
City of Los Angeles, California

Contrary to what some may think, it's never been a better time to be a woman in public works. At least that's the opinion of Brenda Herrman, a panelist during the Progressive Women in Public Works session at the 2007 Congress.

Herrman's co-panelists agreed with that assessment as they discussed their careers and keys to success with nearly 100 women and men attending the workshop. Currently Director of Public Works in Hays, Kansas, Herrman shared the dais with Patricia Biegler, Director of Public Works, Chesapeake, VA; Elia Twigg, Division Manager, Palm Bay, FL; and Rachel Lazarus, retired Manager, Water and Sewer Authority, Washington, D.C. All of the women traveled unconventional paths to reach fulfilling positions in the public works field.

"It's important to have an education and a mentor," said Herrman who began her career as an administrative assistant, then started college at age 42 at the suggestion of her mentor. While working full-time and attending school at night, Herrman saw an ad for Assistant Public Works Director in Hays.

"My mentor encouraged me to apply. He told me, 'You know more than you think you know. You know how things should be done.' And he was right because I applied and was offered the job in 1996," recalled Herrman. After earning a bachelor's degree in 1997, her mentor recommended graduate school, which she finished in 2000. Two years later, she took a lateral assignment as Community Development Director, and shortly thereafter, she was appointed to her present position.

"I recommend to everyone to believe in yourself and let others help you. Get an education or whatever you need to reach your goal and don't be afraid. My philosophy is you can't get what you've never had unless you do what you've never done," said Herrman.

Twigg offered similar advice by urging the audience, "Create opportunities for yourself. Make things happen." To illustrate her point, Twigg recalled how she joined the student chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) while at the University of Florida and the chapter was assigned to build a concrete canoe to compete in a regional competition.

The Professional Women in Public Works session was presented by APWA's Diversity Committee. Participants included (from left) Cora Jackson Fossett, co-moderator; panelists Rachel Lazarus, Brenda Hermann, Elia Twigg, and Patricia Biegler; and Sue Hann, co-moderator. (Photo by Jim Proce)

"I was asked to be team leader for this activity and since I like a good challenge, I accepted," said Twigg. She approached the task in earnest, recruiting a team from scratch, determining needed resources, and picking the brains of members who competed in the past. "I set a goal to make it to the national competition because I knew if I could get the team to believe, maybe we'd get there," Twigg said. And they did make it to the national competition that year, only the second team in UF history. In addition, she learned project management and technical reporting from the experience, plus trained another person to be team leader to take her place in the future.

After graduation, Twigg worked three years in engineering at a small company before deciding she was ready to move up in her career. "I applied for a management position with the City of Palm Bay and I got it. Now, I supervise 75 people and I'm learning even more. But nothing fell in my lap—I made it happen by being prepared and ready," said Twigg.

Echoing that viewpoint, Lazarus said, "Prepare yourself for new opportunities. Don't set limits on your possibilities."

She began her career in 1967 when women were especially rare in public works. She said, "At first I wanted to be a statistician. But after receiving my bachelor's in civil engineering and a master's degree, I held several positions in the public and private sectors." At the height of her career, Lazarus oversaw a $100 million budget and 270 workers.

Lazarus credits APWA with contributing to her advance in the workplace. "I learned so much from attending Congress over the years and I see many more women taking advantage of this conference. I urge you to stay connected to APWA and support your local chapter," she said.

Her guidelines for career success include the following principles: (1) Remember your mother—treat superiors and colleagues honestly; (2) Remember your family—treat everyone with respect; and (3) Remember to maintain your integrity.

Biegler also gives kudos to APWA. She said, "I'm very grateful to this organization for the chance to learn, share and network."

Biegler took an unusual route to her current position. She entered a convent as a teenager, then left after two years. Entering Indiana University, she became active in theater and says, "I went from the convent to playing a streetwalker in operas on tour."

Biegler changed her major several times, then took a break to become a surveyor at an engineering firm. After being laid off, Biegler realized she liked the field, so she returned to school to earn an engineering degree. "I held many jobs including coal miner and first female construction inspector in the south for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. All along the way, people reached out to me and helped me," said Biegler.

As a result of her varied career, she learned, "You can either let life run over you or control your life. Anticipate where you want to go and always know, change is inevitable."

Cora Jackson Fossett chaired the Diversity Committee for two years and is also a former member of the Membership Committee. She can be reached at (213) 978-0319 or at Cora.Jackson@lacity.org.