Public Works: Success in a non-traditional environment

Jennifer Barlas
2001 APWA Diversity Committee

U.S. Census figures tell us that more women are working than ever before. And they're looking for solutions to the problems of finding respect and opportunity on the job, juggling work and family and contributing to making ends meet. Over the past century, women workers have grown steadily in numbers and as a proportion of the workforce. The number of working women has grown from 5.3 million in 1900 to 18.4 million in 1950 and to 63 million in 1997. Women are projected to comprise 48 percent of the labor force by 2005.

How do some of these working women find success in the non-traditional, male-dominated area of public works? I recently spoke with two women who achieved success in public works. Juanita Jackson, Area Superintendent, Department of Environmental Management/Solid Waste Operations for Kansas City, Missouri (population approximately one million) talked to me about her road to success. Juanita entered the workforce after starting a family. She chose public works based on her childhood memories of the colorful public works vehicles that passed her family home on a daily basis en route to the PW yard located at the end of her street.

The youngest of her eight children was only 21/2 years old when in 1979 Juanita applied and got a full-time position as an Equipment Operator I with Kansas City. She quickly realized how important it was for her to gain experience and identified potential mentors in the predominately-male public works department. One of her early mentors, a city maintenance worker nearing retirement, took her under his wing and frequently reminded her, "You can do anything you put your mind to." And that is exactly what Juanita did.

To expand her horizons, Juanita signed up for on-the-job training and took department-supported classes at the local community college to get formal education relative to her job. Her initiative paid off. Juanita rose through the ranks to become the first Kansas City Public Works Department female Labor Leader, General Supervisor and for the last ten years, Area Superintendent with responsibilities for hiring, training and safety for 80 employees and 6 supervisors on her team. Through the years she endured resentment and prejudice, and found herself in a position of having to constantly demonstrate her knowledge and competence on the job. The additional education, mentoring and perseverance allowed Juanita to move into a more administrative (and higher paying) area of public works. "I'm very satisfied with my career progress but it wasn't always easy, especially on my family. They were my greatest supporters." Juanita strongly encourages women and minorities to make the choice for employment with public works agencies by looking beyond the predominately-male environment and setting your own goals.

Cathy Radek is the Superintendent of Administrative Services for the Department of Public Works in Evanston, Illinois (population approximately 74,000). When she entered the public works field 16 years ago, she had no idea she would advance to this highly technical, responsible, and well-compensated position.

Cathy reentered the job market after answering an ad in the local newspaper for a part-time position as a secretary in the Public Works Department at Glen Ellyn, Illinois. After getting married and starting a family, she had a brief career teaching upon graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in English. Within two years Cathy moved into a position of administrative assistant in the department and was surprised to discover how well the job suited her. "I really enjoyed the variety and challenges each day presented, including my duties with department budgeting."

Her enthusiasm and promise must have been apparent. One day the Director of Public Works at the time, Lynn Neuhart, took Cathy aside and discussed career goals with her. He encouraged her to enroll in a graduate program in public administration at a nearby university. Cathy remains extremely grateful to this mentor, who "gave me my start and motivated me."

Over the next five years, with the tuition assistance from her employer and through APWA Chicago Chapter scholarships, she completed a master's degree in public administration with a finance emphasis while continuing on the job. She studied every lunch break and on weekends backed by the support of her family and mentors. "I'm very lucky, I learned from the textbook but also got to see practical applications because of my budgeting responsibilities at a time when the village was implementing a $35 million dollar capital improvement program."

Cathy joined the City of Evanston, Illinois as the Superintendent of Administrative Services for the Department of Public Works five years ago. She is currently responsible for the 320 pieces of rolling stock plus miscellaneous small equipment as well as the Municipal Service Center, the operations headquarters for the Public Works Department, in addition to the Facilities Maintenance Department and the Parks, Forestry and Recreation Department. Public Works management and its staff of 200 are continually challenged by the land use dynamics and on-street parking for the eight-square-mile municipality.

Her primary focus of maintenance planning-including purchasing of goods and services for the fleet, the Municipal Service Center building and its operations, and capital budgeting of projects-makes Cathy very unique among her mostly male peers. "Fleet and building management has not been a popular career path for women even though government service is a great opportunity for a woman. Today, women represent half of the workforce but are not proportionally represented in public works." What concerns her most is the lack of young people, especially women following her path into government service. She encourages people in her department and elsewhere to take advantage of on-the-job training and tuition assistance in order to obtain a degree while at the same time participating in, not just attending, activities of associations such as APWA where peer interaction occurs.

There are still many challenges to be met by women entering the non-traditional, male-dominated public works environment, particularly in rising to the ranks of upper management. Women of all ages should be encouraged to explore careers in public works, engineering, math and science for rewarding work and compensation in the new century. Women should negotiate and press for more respect and opportunity on the job, better pay and benefits, and a balance between work and family responsibilities. It is important to emphasize to employers that women are nearly half the workforce. Government service employers must adjust to meet the needs of today's young women, as well as men, to ensure the success of their departments in the future.

I'm certain these are two of many examples of women who find success in a non-traditional environment like public works. The Diversity Committee would like to hear more success stories on the subject. If you or anybody you know are willing to share success stories, please contact Kaye Sullivan, Deputy Executive Director at (816) 472-6100 or