Recognizing the benefits of women in public works

Debby Key
Project Administrator
Engineering Department
City of Gastonia, North Carolina

Are women being promoted to top positions in public works? Interesting, thought-provoking question that, generally, elicits one of two gestures: Some respond as if considering it for the first time, "Hmmmm?" Others just smile. Most likely you are doing one or the other right now.

Outside of public works, in large corporations women hold approximately 15% of the top positions. Obviously, this is hardly representative of our population. When both men and women are surveyed as to why women are not being promoted at a higher percentage, their reasons are generally consistent.

Men's Responses

  • There are not enough women applicants with the right experience.
  • Women do not make the sacrifices required for top positions.
  • Women lack the necessary skills, are not adept at making decisions and shy away from taking risks.
  • Women do not promote their abilities or "most women don't compete as hard as most men."1
  • Women are not team players.

Women's Responses

  • "Old Boy Network" - Men are the ones who are promoting and the networking places are not accessible to women.
  • Men think women cannot handle stress, are too emotional and have problems with delegation.
  • Men think women are not career oriented.
  • One woman's perceived failure is attributed to all women.
  • A man is viewed as bringing "more authority" to the position.

Unfortunately, it appears that some attitudes have changed very little over the years. In 2006, women and men are equally educated, experienced and skilled. The traits that have been identified as women's "problems" can hardly be considered gender specific. Many men display one or more of the above traits, yet are still considered qualified for senior positions. There are a lot of articles written about the need for women to overcome these inherent flaws, but the truth is, women should not be fooled into thinking they are necessarily heading for a promotion by doing so.

Has the public sector made any more progress than the private sector? Conducting an informal survey within my own organization, an equal number of men and women in mid- and upper-level management positions were asked the same question. Responses to the question were similar to those previously noted. Interestingly, two responses from men tried to justify men's behavior, rather than identify women's failures:

  • Some men feel intimidated by women with power.
  • Men may be trying to avoid perceived problems with placing a woman in charge of male subordinates.

There is probably some inherent truth in the above responses as later explained. Additionally, both men and women felt that the public sector had made more progress in promoting women than the private sector. Statistics show this is true. Women are gaining ground. In 2001, the percentage of women policy leaders (meaning department heads and top advisors) was 34.9%. Of this, the percentage of women department heads was 30.7%. Both numbers represent an increase of 7% since 1997. Even with such an impressive increase in four years, women are still very much underrepresented in top positions, given they are approximately half of the population.

What was most interesting and revealing about this informal survey was what respondents did not say. Consistently, each man wrinkled his brow, cast his eyes upward and stammered a response. For the most part, men did not feel there was a problem. Conversely, as if sharing a common understanding, women, initially, just smiled. Prior to speaking, however, each woman confirmed her anonymity. This issue did not seem to be a concern for men.

How distressing that after four decades of women seeking equality in the workplace, it seems that women are reluctant to talk about it for fear their careers might suffer. This might explain the responses received from men. Basically, the issue is not being discussed; thereby, it is not being acknowledged. This lack of recognition leads to the perception that there is no problem.

Beyond all the explanations for women's inability to make greater strives in securing top positions, the answer may be even simpler. Yet, the "fix" is much more difficult. Interestingly enough, it is something that we all have been guilty of in one form or another. Consider this: When you walk into a meeting with strangers, do you typically choose a seat near someone with whom you can identify...someone like yourself? This behavior wasn't learned, it's an instinct carried over from childhood. Most of us have a tendency to stay with what is comfortable.

This same instinct may be carrying over into our hiring choices. Since men are making a majority of the hiring decisions, history indicates that mostly men will be promoted. The relatively few number of women in top positions suggests that very few managers, male or female, are willing to step outside of their comfort zone.

Does this mean that women are doomed to mid-level manager positions? Not at all. Savvy leaders are beginning to recognize the contributions that a diverse management team brings to the organization. A 2004 study by Catalyst, the New York-based organization that tracks the progress of women in business, revealed that companies with more women at the top performed better financially.2 Further, women managers are consistently rated higher than their male counterparts on 37 of 47 critical management qualities, such as leadership, social skills, problem-solving and decision-making.3

A diverse management team can bring many benefits to an organization. From left: Wanda Forrester, Kristy Crisp, Sue Puckett and Gregg Sturgis of the City of Gastonia Engineering Department discuss design elements of a street improvement project.

Perhaps the above accomplishments can be attributed to women's inherent nurturing instincts; however, we should not confuse this with "mothering." That term has long been used in a derogatory manner to describe women's management style. To nurture is to develop, cultivate, foster, promote and encourage—all sound business advice in any organization. In a study by the Women's Leadership Center in Massachusetts, 97% of women said "customer satisfaction" is the most important business priority and 92% said "employee satisfaction." Eighty-one percent said "company culture." Women believe that if you get the people part right, it will lead to the financial results and business performance desired.4 It appears to be a successful strategy. Seventy-five percent of businesses started by women succeed.

There is a certain amount of change and understanding that could be encouraged for both men and women. "Recognition" may be the key to making real changes. Both male and female managers need to recognize their reluctance to break away from what is comfortable in their hiring choices. If men have historically held a position that is now open, consider the benefits that a woman could bring to the position. Consider if the reasons for your hesitation to place a female in that position are valid.

Women, get your applications in, regardless of how you feel the position will be filled. The face of public works is changing. It is not just for men anymore. Public works may just be the niche to exploit your leadership talents. It is proven that women and a diverse management team are beneficial to the success of the organization and, in the end, that really is the bottom line.

Debby Key can be reached at (704) 866-6834 or


1 Fast Company, "Where Are the Women?", Issue 79, February 2004, Page 52, by Linda Tischler

2 -, Newsfeed, "The Case for Corporate Life," July 21, 2005, OC Metro, by Kimberly A. Porrazzo

3 -, The Wall Street Journal, "Breaking the Glass Ceiling: What's Holding Women Back?" by Valerie Patterson

4 -, Newsfeed, "Most Women Executives Put Focus on Customers, Employees," January 9, 2006, The Salt Lake Tribune, by Rosemary Winters


CSWA Newsletter, AAS Committee on the Status of Women Weekly Issues of 3/10/99, edited by Priscilla Benson

WITI Careers, "Women Friendly Companies: What Works, What Doesn't & Why," by Barbara Annis, Summer 2004 ed. WITI FastTrack

Fast Company, "Where Are the Women?", Issue 79, February 2004, Page 52, by Linda Tischler

"Appointed Policy Makers in State Government, A Demographic Analysis: Gender, Race and Ethnicity Data," A Report of the Center for Women in Government and Civil Society, Fall 2001, Newsfeed, "The Case for Corporate Life," July 21, 2005, OC Metro, by Kimberly A. Porrazzo, The Wall Street Journal, "Breaking the Glass Ceiling: What's Holding Women Back?" by Valerie Patterson, Newsfeed, "Most Women Executives Put Focus on Customers, Employees," January 9, 2006, The Salt Lake Tribune, by Rosemary Winters