Women in public works have stories worth telling!

Connie Hartline
Publications Manager
American Public Works Association
Kansas City, Missouri

If you're looking for something to read now that you've machined through all those holiday gift books and DVDs, let me recommend a short, free compilation of essays from APWA. This joint collaboration between APWA's Diversity Committee and the Progressive Women in Public Works Steering Committee will make you laugh, possibly tear up, and leave you with new perspectives and insights on the increasing number of women in public works. The essays tell the stories of 50 women—newbies, seasoned veterans nearing retirement, and everything in between—who make the world better every day through their roles and responsibilities in public works.

Some of these personal stories are humorous, others touching, still others are inspiring, but no two are alike. Often, the stories include "firsts," such as Patricia Biegler (Chesapeake, Va.) who was the U.S. Army's first civilian female director of public works, or Elia Twigg (Palm Bay, Fla.) and her twin sister who were the first set of twins to graduate with a B.S. in engineering from the University of Florida.

Representing a cross-section of age, experience, race and national origin, the authors serve in the public and private sectors, at all levels of public works from stock clerk to director of public works. They have varied levels of education, some going to school early in their lives, others later, and some taking years to obtain their degrees.

Many of the women have worn several hats along their career paths. For them public works is a second or third career, with previous experience that includes the military, law enforcement, social work, clerical duties and the entertainment industry. As Judy Workman (Westminster, Colo.) puts it, "Never did I look in the mirror as a child and say 'I want to be a fleet manager when I grow up!'"

Some, like APWA's Colene Vogel, "stumbled in the back door" to her previous career in solid waste in Independence, Mo. Teresa Scott (Gainesville, Fla.) recalls stealing her five-year-old brother's Matchbox cars and "escaping into the backyard to build roads to drive the cars" in her made-up town. Years later when she was applying to colleges, with her mother's help she began to see engineering as the path she should follow. Today, she builds roads for real cars to travel.

The scope of personal backgrounds ranges from having had no concept of wanting to be in public works, to joining the "family business," to being the daughter of a sharecropper. But even with all of this diversity, all the women share a sense that their jobs are "worth doing" because they serve the public good. Yazmin Arellano (Brawley, Calif.), who was born in Mexicali, Mexico, is "still in love" with her profession and says all her "professional challenges have turned into successful events." For Rebecca Bilderback (Olathe, Kans.), it's knowing that the services she provides "are making a difference in people's lives and sustaining their high quality of life." Sue Hann's (Palm Bay, Fla.) hope is that she "can leave a legacy of unbridled enthusiasm for the public works profession. Whether you are filling the pothole or leading the department, you have an essential role in your community."

Karen Leback (Houston, Tex.) admits that it hasn't always been easy being a non-engineering professional in an engineering department. But, she maintains that women bring much to the management table because of what she identifies as a "servant leader" style of management. For Leback, such qualities as empathy, persuasion, commitment to growth of employees, and collaboration are conducive to creating a service-oriented culture in a public works organization.

According to Sherri McIntyre (HDR, Kansas City, Mo.), another hindrance has been that organizations haven't always been equitable in pay-grade systems. For instance, an agency she once worked for temporarily backfilled her supervisory position with a younger male engineer at a higher salary when she took a three-month maternity leave. While she offers up the story as a "funny situation" that had mitigating circumstances, she points out that such differences often existed throughout a woman's career.

Another commonality among these women is that many acknowledge they didn't get where they are by themselves. Katherine Claeys (Seattle, Wash.) credits two sources to her success, "having a mentor and getting involved in professional organizations." Self-described "late bloomer" Brenda Herrman (Hays, Kans.) is lavish in praise of her mentors. Her advice is to believe in yourself and become a mentor to someone you think has potential. "You never know when YOU will be the person who made a difference in someone's life and/or career path."

The essays can be downloaded in PDF format, at no charge, from the APWA website on the Diversity Committee page at www.apwa.net/about/board/diversity.asp?mode=women.

Connie Hartline can be reached at (816) 595-5258 or chartline@apwa.net.