A viewpoint on women in public works

Augie ChangFlip Bombardier, Assistant City Manager of Operations, City of Gastonia, North Carolina; member, APWA Diversity Committee

The stage was set. Our APWA Diversity Committee had been conferring and planning ways to continue bringing diversity issues to the forefront. Concurrently, the APWA Leadership and Management Committee was working on a plan to conduct an open forum discussion at the 2005 APWA Congress and Exposition. That seemed reasonable enough, but the topic was certainly different and might even raise some eyebrows. With their focus on Women in Public Works, the intent of the forum was to bring together a group of women from the public works profession that were attending the Congress, and to openly discuss items such as the challenge of being a woman in the public works field, changes needed by management to promote women in public works and how to implement best management practices to instill positive changes for women. The Diversity Committee jumped on board with their proposed forum with a goal to actively support and participate in such.

The forum time had arrived. Needless to say, the idea of males attending a women’s forum was daunting at best. A quick check of the meeting room escalated the apprehension. There in front of us was a room packed with strictly women and only two men in sight, including ourselves. It was a safe bet that we looked like two deer caught in the headlights. Moreover, it was obvious that we were going to be sacrificed and never see the public works world again. Just in case, we came well prepared for a quick exit if needed, bringing gifts of expensive candy and exotic jewelry (masquerading as exhibitor table freebies and multi-colored Mardi Gras beads from the New Orleans Exhibit Booth). Our fears included being trapped without escape for the next 60 minutes to hear all the stories of how men were the Darth Vaders of the public works world.

Obviously, we were a little uncomfortable as to the perception of our simple presence at the Women’s Forum, but once we went through the introductions, we felt a little more at ease. We listened to input from many women on a wide spectrum of issues. Part of the comments were expected, others were new. Some comments certainly indicated that there was much room to improve on women’s issues in public works, such as gaining credibility, respect, recognition, and of course, pay. There was a desire for more awareness of women’s public works roles by their male counterparts, and women sometimes felt “isolated” amongst their peers, by both sheer numbers, as well as by standard stereotypes.

There were further comments about how some of the women in attendance had positive experiences with career opportunities and advancement, as well as positive mentoring received from male supervisors. Some comments were made that women needed to rise above the pettiness and gossip, and focus on their respective duties and their role in the workplace. Showing a strong assertiveness was offered as a possible key, together with professional respect, and furthermore highlighting the good qualities that women bring to the work environment.

Recommendations were made to the women newcomers in public works to participate more in chapter activities, which can lead to better recognition and a leadership role. The women in attendance expressed a strong desire for more (future) roundtable discussions, social events, speakers and sessions on a wide range of women’s topics and mentor training (both men and women). Did we hear any “complaining”? Certainly, but probably not as much as we hear (and participate in) when a group of men get together and discuss the exact same issues.

Before we realized it, our meeting time had expired and we had actually (and quite easily) survived. Our time participating in this forum was certainly time well spent. What could we summarize from this unique experience? A lot of simple, straightforward facts; women face all of the same challenges men face in a public works profession. Credibility, respect, adequate pay and a desire to be part of a strong networking team, just to name a few. Hmmm…that not only seems reasonable, but some common ground for building professional relationships.

Do women face greater challenges than men in the public works profession? That may be entirely true. Gaining credibility in a work environment historically dominated by men, in addition to overcoming the negative stereotypes, still very likely remain obstacles in certain settings. What can we men do to assist in this cause? The first step is easy; continue to recognize the importance and benefits of diversity in our workforces. As importantly, with regard to women in management positions, recognize and take advantage of the professionalism and performance qualities that they bring to the table.

So, we issue a challenge to everyone (including men) in the public works field: Look up, look out and see the expertise, strength, dedication and other qualities that women can continue to bring the public works profession. Diversity throughout our management teams and entire workforce brings a higher level of understanding public works service and diversified problem solving skills, all resulting in a more complete delivery of services for public works-related endeavors.

Our Diversity Committee continues in 2006 to focus on Women in Public Works, with an expanded program planned at this year’s Congress. We invite all to join us in these programs and actively participate.

Augie Chang can be reached at (858) 576-9200 or achang@psomas.com; Flip Bombardier, a 2006 Top Ten Public Works Leader of the Year, can be reached at (704) 866-6763 or flipb@cityofgastonia.com.