Women Impacting Water: A Roundtable Discussion

Career Stories, Women in Water

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CWEA had the fortunate opportunity to conduct a round table discussion with four inspiring California water leaders. Debi Lewis, Kathy Suter, Tracy Stigers and Heather Collins shared personal experiences of being a woman working in water. Our conversation included the narrowing gender gap, changes they have seen along the way and where they see the profession heading in an evolving and dynamic society.

Can you give a brief background on gender equality when you first started in the profession?

Kathy Suter: Being a woman in the lab, I don’t think was a gender issue because it was a very expected role for women to work in the lab.

Tracy Stigers: I went to two technological universities, and at both of them, women were less than 10% of the total student body. I was part of the Society of Women Engineers, and we went to a conference at a southern university where we were met on campus by some male students who asked if we were “some of those women engineers,” we said, “Yeah.” They proceeded to tell us very sweetly, that we were destroying American society and that we were taking good paying jobs away from men who needed them to support their families. That we needed to be at home supporting those men who were supporting their family. We were dumbfounded, and they just walked away. We thought, “What just happened?” Didn’t quite experience that anywhere else, fortunately. When I started work, there were a good number of women engineers at my company with women being about a third of the entry-level hires, so there was a good group of women there, but the most senior female technical professional at the time, still had less than five years experience.

Is there a gender gap in this profession?

Heather Collins: In my perspective, going through school, yes, I was always one of the few women. It didn’t necessarily bother me. As I’ve gone through my career, I’ve worked with a cross cultural community of professionals, so it’s been interesting to recognize how people think, respond, see what drives them, and then adapting to those different styles. We are now under the microscope about infrastructure and funding from the professional boards and elected officials. I’ve always felt very ethical and fair in what I do and how I treat people and how I treat issues. There are some individuals on the male side that are not balancing what we’re balancing. We, on the other hand, we’re physically wired and built differently. So while we want and have careers that fulfill us, we also need fulfillment in raising our kids, having a family, having relationships with our spouses and partners and friends. We need that nourishment in order to be successful and keep moving forward in our professional lives. With AWWA, an association that’s been around for a long time, our Cal-Nevada Section is going to celebrate its 100th year here in 2020. When you look back at the old photos, yes, it’s all men, very much male dominated, and there have been very few female presidents. We are now going on the third or fourth female president. Right behind me, there are two women leaders in our section.

Debi Lewis: In 2012, I gave a paper at the AWWA annual conference and exposition in Texas. At an awards ceremony, they introduced the board.  All of the board members they brought up were white males. I was watching thinking, “Maybe the next person, maybe the next person.” And then a woman who I didn’t know leaned over to me when introductions were finished and said, “This really has to change.” And I realized that other people were thinking the same thing. I remember the perception that women, if they were powerful, were perceived as hard and cruel. That was the general perception of powerful women. You couldn’t actually be feminine, kind and powerful. Now we are able to acknowledge we are different individuals and we don’t operate at the level of testosterone that men do. The gift of diversity is that it makes us a much more effective firm. We are sensitive to co-workers, clients, and to the people we interact with. A difference in gender is real and it’s important to acknowledge we are different and we bring different things to the table.

Tracy: I felt that, in general, my company was reasonably gender blind, but at my fifth employment anniversary, I received a letter from a senior executive congratulating me. It was a very personal letter and referenced a lot of my project work and congratulated me but concluded with, “Congratulations, and I’m surprised and impressed at how well you’ve done in a man’s world.” He was certain I would serve as a good role model to other women. I was insulted by that a bit. If I was a success, why would I only be a role model to women? If I’m a successful engineer, why am I not a role model or a mentor to any young engineer? And that’s always how I’ve tried to function and work within the profession myself.

Kathy:  In most of the other departments where I worked, it was all men. We had a few women operators at various times and a few women in other divisions, but admin and lab generally had more women. I always tried to make it so we worked together for the common goal of what we were trying to do, which was make clean water.

Did you ever feel the need to advocate for change to make the profession more open and equal for women? Any successes and challenges you’ve faced? 

Tracy: When I started, the company was concerned about making sure the women engineers were integrated well and that we were treated equally. We all took it very seriously and came to the conclusion that a lot of our issues were more for the fact we were new, not just that we were women. We had an opening with management to bring issues up to them, and one of the issues we wanted to talk about was flex time. It was very new, or at least new in our industry in the 1980s. We were met with the comment, “we’re not going to deal with that because that’s just a woman’s issue.” What we were trying to identify was the only people in the office already doing flex time informally were men sharing the responsibility for childcare and getting their kids to and from school. It was interesting at that point, the company viewed the need to help with flexibility and time to deal with childcare, was a woman’s issue even though the men were dealing equally with it. It took quite a bit of time for that to turn around.

Heather: It took a while for the AWWA Young Professionals Group to get attention by the associations but once that happened, it was a place women, the younger generation and even men knew they could go and converse with others and gain support. That support led to open dialog conversations that led them to opportunities of exposure to then pursue where they wanted to go from a professional development standpoint. Advocating for change is maybe not as blunt as someone thinks. There are arenas we are creating to foster engagement and dialogue to pursue what we want and to move forward.

Kathy: The more women we got involved in CWEA the bigger and more professional it became. There were a lot of women to look up to and to give you support. The more women you get into different agencies or organizations, the more people learn they are capable and can do a good job and bring good ideas to the table. You don’t have to be the same as a man, you can still do the job, maybe in different ways, but you can accomplish the same goal.

Debi: Sometimes without even being an advocate, just the fact you’re female, you occupy a position of prominence or power, in and of itself, provides a tremendous amount of motivation for women.

What advice would you give women or anyone entering this profession? And what do you see happening in the future in regards to diversity?

Debi:  The next generation has a desire to have a balanced life coming in the door. And they are not unreasonable in thinking that should be part of the package, so I want to acknowledge that. Although many of us have made tremendous sacrifices, we also have to realize things are changing.

Tracy: Be confident in what you know and what you do, stay curious, ask questions, and learn as much as you can, try different things, look for how the dots connect and how the pieces go together and to have fun doing it. Our industry has so many interesting facets that fit together in so many interesting ways. Really presenting our industry and the opportunities and impacts of the jobs in our field in K-12 grades will bring more people into our field.

Kathy: I always try to bring up the fact that water and wastewater are excellent careers. As a lab person, I went to a lot of Bay Section meetings with a lot of engineers. To me the talks around engineering were fascinating to try to understand. Working in a small plant, like I did you have to understand the whole process. When I went into elementary schools, I always talked about how many different things were involved. There are so many different forms of science. There are great jobs and great opportunities in wastewater, and I always encourage taking advantage of professional organizations like AWWA and CWEA and learning as much as you can.

Heather: When I talk to groups or kids at different water events, I ask what they want to do. It used to be when you were little you wanted to be the nurse, the fireman, the policeman. Now, there’s a lot of people in the younger generation that are all about coding and gaming and computers and data scientists. I’m able to tie that back into core opportunities and sustainable careers within our water and wastewater infrastructure. There’s economists, strategists, doctors. Think of the public health fields, you could be doing the research. There are graphic artists, statisticians, engineers, or public relations.  You’re not working for just one little agency or district, your reach is much bigger, and the opportunities for development and fulfillment of what you want to do are vast.

Debi: What really sold me about this profession is when someone told me a story about a community right here in the United States where as soon as the infrastructure was developed, suddenly, the schools got better, and there were more opportunities for employment.
The whole nature and life of the residents changed because of the things we brought to the community. I truly feel what we do really matters. I want people to remember the value of the service we bring to the community, it is life. You cannot live without water and wastewater systems. What we do is critical and important.  We are part of a life-giving service to the communities we serve.