Diversity: is working together working?
Christin Hudak does not look intimidating. But the 5-1, 110-pound, self-described “pipsqueak” can more than hold her own in a shouting match with a macho drywall contractor. She has to be able to. It’s her job.
Hudak is a civil engineering student, one of two to win a $1,000 scholarship from the Virginia / Washington, D.C. / Maryland chapter of the American Public Works Association. (Ironically, the other recipient was also a woman.)
She was working as the project engineer on construction of a $12 million school building when she had the run-in with the contractor. “I had made a punch list on the drywall job,” she says. “There were a lot of patches that had not been done properly and needed to be fixed. He began screaming at me, because he didn’t want to fix anything until he had the architect’s punch list. He told me, ‘If you want me to do this, you’re going to have to get someone down here who I can respect. You’re my daughter’s age, and I’ll treat you like I do my daughter.'”
Ignoring the contractor’s unintended admission about his treatment of his daughter, Hudak said, “Fine. You don’t have to fix this. But you will be back-charged when you do.” He did the work.
Diversity has become one of those politically charged buzzwords guaranteed to cause white-guy angst. For some, it conjures up the serious — visions of minority set-asides and women leapfrogging over them in the employment food chain — and the inane — creation of an atmosphere in which all their best jokes are useless.
Some respond by making serious attempts to address the problem. Nearly every local government conference, and most of those that are public works-related, now feature at least one seminar dedicated to understanding and reacting to the phenomenon of women and minorities in the workplace. Others use the ostrich’s tactic, burying their heads in the sand and hoping when they come up for air the problem will be gone.
Unfortunately for them, that tactic doesn’t work, not even for ostriches.
According to the latest census figures, in 1990, there were 60.2 million white males in the civilian labor force, 56.3 million females (black and white) and 6.9 million black males. Based on those figures and demographic data, the Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1994, predicts that in the year 2005, there will be 66 million white males in the civilian labor force, 8.3 million black males and 67.8 million females. Even without factoring in Hispanic, Asian, Native American and other minorities, it is clear things are changing rapidly.
PARTNERSHIPS ARE KEY
It is true that the public works field is becoming more sensitive to the women and minorities within its ranks. It was not that long ago that exhibitor booths at the American Public Works Association (APWA) congress, ConExpo and a number of the construction/engineering-related trade shows featured scantily clad women on the assumption that, while men may not be rushing enthusiastically to check out the latest in resilient seated gate valves, they’d certainly flock to the booth with the bikinied blonde.
While the practice has not been completely discontinued (the women now wear tight minidresses and spin roulette wheels), it is no longer the norm.
This represents a change in the attitudes of the vendors — as opposed to the trade show host, which has little control over exhibitor booths — who are now realizing that a growing number of people who are interested in resilient seated gate valves are women and minorities.
The publications that target the industry also have evolved to reflect the new realities. Less than 15 years ago, for example, American City & County ran an ad for a sweeper company that featured a bathing suited babe looking seductively over her shoulder above the words, “You’ll like the bottom line. Shape up to some beautiful figures.”
“I see a lot of changes from the educational institute viewpoint, both high school and college,” says Neil Grigg, head of the Civil Engineering Department at Colorado State University and a member of the APWA’s board of directors. Grigg, who has been studying the issue of diversity in the engineering field and who has spearheaded a number of conferences aimed at increasing minority participation in the field, sees positive signs but acknowledges there is still much to be done.
“The prospects and opportunities for minorities and women are much better than they were 20 years ago,” he says. “It’s a combination of the sum total of all the programs and media efforts aimed at improving diversity in the workplace. There is a growing realization that improving diversity is not just some mandated government thing; it’s something we need to do.”
At the same time, Grigg faults local governments and public works organizations across the country for failing to provide more opportunities for women and minorities in the public works field. “Based on my contacts, I conclude that this should be a higher priority for public works organizations than it is,” he says.
Partnerships among educational institutions and local public works departments and engineering firms are the key to turning the situation around, Grigg says. “If we had more partnerships for youth in general — minority and non-minority — between public works agencies, educational institutions and contractors, we’d see some progress,” he says.
Unfortunately, when federal dollars are being cut and government is busy being “reinvented,” diversity issues tend to drop by the wayside. “My central idea is that, if you look at the public works field, it gets a lot more public investment than most other fields. Highways, bridges, transportation, water all demand high public investment,” Grigg says. “And all that public investment is a lever that could be used to encourage people in the field to create opportunities for women and minorities.”
Additionally, Grigg believes in the idea of incentives offered to public works agencies and contractors that hire more women and minorities, although he notes that to some that would smack of affirmative action with all its negative connotations. “There are some groups that would be opposed to any policy,” he says. “But we need to get to a point where we say, ‘We’re gonna do what’s right. Leave us alone.’ Of course, any kind of policy like that would have to have some kind of built-in velvet hammer.”
The APWA, Grigg says, should not only be involved in the creation of internships and partnerships and in promoting incentives, it should be leading the effort.
“APWA leadership has a responsibility to ensure that we are a diverse organization,” agrees Ramon Miguez, Dallas assistant city manager and former director of both the public works and streets and sanitation departments. “The current membership must actively seek out qualified minority members. Then again, minorities must pursue positions of authority. It’s a two-way street.”
OPENING UP THE CLUB
To some extent, the APWA is making an effort, which may reflect a growing realization within its membership that diversity is not something that is going to go away.
Still, in its 101-year history, the APWA has had two black male presidents and one woman president. Its 12-member board of directors has never had more than two non-white male members at any one time.
That, however, is changing, if not on a national level, at least on a chapter level. It is at the chapter level that women and minorities often find it easier to make their marks.
“The strength of the APWA is at the chapter level,” notes Charlottesville, Va., Public Works Director Judy Mueller. “It’s much easier for women and minorities to get involved, and it’s amazing the acceptance you find there.”
Cheverly, Md., Public Works Director Juan Torres agrees. “I don’t really see the Good ‘Ol Boys club at the local level,” he says. “The people who have been active in public works here, whether they’re white males or not, have made their mark. Why not learn from them? When my turn comes, and someone opposes me because I am Puerto Rican, then I will talk about the Good ‘Ol Boy network.”
Still, despite the acceptance that many find in their local chapters, the national organization, does attract its share of heat from inorities and women. Some, like Dayton, Ohio, Public Works Director Clarence Williams, however, criticize the APWA as a “bastion of the good ol’ boys.”
“There’s a large group of public works professionals who have no intention of ever allowing the field to open up,” Williams says. “For them, public works was always a protected career path. You were an engineer, then you were a public works director. And they didn’t have to worry much about women and minorities.”
Williams acknowledges that little can be done to change the perceptions of those people. “They just have to retire,” he says, pointing out that that is already happening.
Julia Forge, the public works director of East Providence, R.I., and chair of APWA’s Council for Equal Opportunity, agrees. “I think things are changing because of age,” she says. “[APWA’s] membership is getting younger, and we’re seeing more women and minorities get involved. Before, it was a closed group — the good ol’ boys. If you didn’t know them, you couldn’t get involved. I wouldn’t say everything’s perfect, but we’re making some progress. There is resistance, and some people are coming along kind of disgruntledly.”
Mueller agrees. “It’s as much a generational thing as anything else,” she says. “But now there are enough women in high level positions that they have to take you seriously. Fifteen years ago, any woman who called you was assumed to be a secretary. Early in my career, I had problems with people who would say they didn’t return phone calls from a woman.”
On the other hand, Hudak says the post-40 public works crowd poses the least problem for her. “I’m not a threat to the older guys,” she says. “They already have their jobs and careers. It’s the younger guys I have to prove myself to. A lot of them will assume I will get a job at a higher salary than they do just because I’m a woman.”
And, according to Williams, it’s not just the white males who are having trouble. “Black males resent women, too,” he says. “It’s a macho thing. They don’t want to admit that picking up garbage is not what it used to be. We don’t have any manual transmission trucks in our fleet anymore. You’re dealing mostly with paper, and women are just as good — if not better — at that than men.”
Furthermore, if people within the profession who have seen the changes have difficulty with the idea of women and minorities as public works officials, it is occasionally even more pronounced for John Q. Public.
“Just after I took over, a man called and said he wanted to speak to the county engineer,” says Klara Fabry, who performs that duty for Whitman County, Wash. “I told him, ‘You are speaking to the county engineer.’ He said, ‘No, no. I don’t want to speak to a lady. I want to speak to the county engineer.'”
Fabry finally was able to set up an appointment to meet with the caller, ultimately convincing him she was indeed the county engineer.
Still, the incident stunned her, not just because her credentials are unassailable, but because she wasn’t used to be questioned about gender. That is not the way things work in her native Transylvania.
Fabry is in a unique position to judge the position of women in public works. She came to the United States seeking political asylum in 1990, leaving behind an established life in which she was a transportation engineer overseeing hundreds of employees.
She reached the states. knowing no English. “I had to give up everything and start from zero,” she says.
The double whammy of her gender and her accent proved a stumbling block initially, but her persistence paid off when Whitman County hired her. (She has already accepted a new position as director of public works for Jefferson County, Wash.)
Ironically, Fabry says, it was not until she came to the United States, land of the free, that she felt the sting of discrimination.
“In Transylvania, I was an engineer,” she says. “I never felt that I was a woman engineer until I came here. Then I started to feel it. Then it became a disadvantage.”
She reasons that the lack of women in the field may contribute to their treatment. In Europe, larger numbers of women in the engineering fields ensure that no one is perceived as an oddity.
Interestingly, Fabry believes that learning to balance raising a family with a professional career gives European women an edge men don’t have.
Williams agrees, arguing that women seem to be not only more committed to their jobs, they are often in better physical condition. “A lot of these women are heads of households,” he says. “They’ll do anything to feed their kids, so there’s not really a problem with bad habits. They’re not going out getting drunk at night, and they’re not getting into drugs.”
THE IMPORTANCE OF MENTORS
Regardless, though, the occupation still is perceived as a man’s world, and it is the rare woman who not only enters it, but makes it home.
Mary Ann Summerfield is one such woman. The operations and maintenance manager for surface drainage and vegetation management for the Tulsa, Okla., Department of Public Works, Summerfield started her career in the parks and recreation department, usually deemed a suitable place for professional women to work.
She moved steadily up through the ranks until she applied for a court clerk’s job for which she was eminently qualified. That was when she hit the glass ceiling.
“The mayor was somewhat naive about what constituted discrimination,” she says, wryly. “He told me it was a man’s job.” Summerfield settled out of court and broke into public works.
“Times have changed,” she says. “At first, it was difficult for the good ol’ boys. But I felt I had a strong enough personality to deal with them.”
The changing times can be at least partly attributed to minorities currently in the profession who have made it their mission to try to attract others to what was always perceived as a fairly dry occupation.
Torres, for example, talks up the profession whenever he visits his schoolteacher wife’s classes on career day.
“I’m always bragging about public works to everyone. Next to being a priest, I think there’s no better caling,” says Torres, whose first college degree was in theology. “I tell the Hispanic kids, ‘This is one of the greatest jobs in the world.'”
Summerfield, like most other women in the field, is intensely concerned with smoothing the way for those who follow. “A lot of women fought the good battles and broke the barriers,” she says. “They made it possible for us to say, ‘This is the way it is. Get over it.'”
Women and minorities presently working in the field owe it to those who broke the barriers to function as mentors for those following, Summerfield believes. It is a task she takes very seriously and one to which she devotes a healthy percentage of her time. In fact, Summerfield has been a career adviser for a national sorority for 20 years, constantly challenging young women to look at options in public works.
That can only make the field better, according to Summerfield. “Women have a tendency to do more than men in order to eliminate the possibility of criticism,” she says. “We work a little harder, partly because we have to, but also because we’re more detail-oriented in general.”
Those who argue engineering is too technical a discipline for most women, Summerfield says, should look at the future. “Look at what an engineer is going to be expected to do tomorrow,” she says. “Most of their work will be contract administration, consulting work, teamwork, things that involve people skills, not engineering skills. Engineering associations have recognized that. We need to reframe the reference points.”
Indeed, when Charlottesville hired Mueller, the city did so specifically because she was not an engineer. “This is a very diverse department,” she says. “We handle the utilities, the bus service, building maintenance. They were looking for a manager. For me, it is advantageous not to be an engineer. More and more departmentrs are finding that the public works director has to spend so much time out in the community. We’re so into community-based decision-making and environmental issues, we don’t have time to get bogged down with site plans.”
At the same time, Mueller notes that much of the prejudice she has felt in the field has stemmed not so much from the fact that she is a woman, as from the fact that she is not an engineer.
Meanwhile, what Summerfield and others like her want is merely the opportunity to do what they do best. “I am not a black public works director,” Williams says. “I am a public works director who just happens to be black. I only want the same respect anyone else would get. I ask for no more and will accept no less.”
“Is change happening?” asks Miguez. “Yes. Is it happening fast enough? No. But it is happening. I’m an example of that”