It’s Women in Construction week! We’d like to thank all of women at Madison Water Utility who are integral to our mission and day-to-day operations.
We also took a moment to talk to a few women breaking barriers in both the water and construction industries.
Kelly is a Design Engineer and self-described “magnet for careers in male-dominated industries.” This is her third career after being a journeywoman carpenter and brew master. Kelly plans and manages water main and facility projects through all stages from planning and outreach to design, bidding, construction, and close-out. Her design for our Water Wagon is just one example of her innovative work!
Kelle is a Public Works Maintenance Worker 1 and currently the only woman on our distribution crews. Prior to working at the water utility, Kelle worked in a factory, a tire warehouse, and as an hourly with the City of Madison’s Engineering Division. On the crews, Kelle does a variety of tasks: valve turning, repairing or reconstructing water mains, driving a dump truck, flushing hydrants, and grounds maintenance.
Kali is a Field Service Representative 2 in our Meter Shop and was initially hired as an hourly in our Finance section. She had over fifteen years of experience doing administration work. When a position opened up in our Meter Shop, Kali stepped out from from behind her desk to apply and was hired. Kali goes out to homes and businesses to test, repair, and replace our metering equipment.
Opportunities and Challenges for Women in the Industry
“I don’t see myself sitting in an office every day,” said Kelle. “I like working with my hands. I love working outside.” (She said this after we’d just experienced the coldest February in over 30 years!) Kelle also enjoys the sense of accomplishment that comes with her work. “When I go past a ditch or something and can say, ‘I did that.’ I like that feeling.”
In our engineering section, there are opportunities to grow and solve problems. “I like knowing that I can become better at what I'm doing through just doing it, and taking on new challenges,” said Kelly. “I feel like I'm part of a team that has each other's backs. Having independence and also support when I need it has allowed me to grow.”
For Kali, it is all about the customer interaction and representation as she goes out to work on meters. “My favorite thing about my job is interacting with the community and our young BIPOC future,” she said. “If my face is out there they can see, 'She can do that' and know they can too.” She also enjoys the opportunities to answer questions and educate people about water.
Though working in construction has been very rewarding for all three women, it’s not without challenges.
“A lot of people want to look past me,” said Kali. “I’ve had many people ask me, ‘And who’s here to do the job?’ I had an interaction with a guy who was completely dumbfounded. He actually watched me from afar, I think he was hoping I would fail... People are really quick to judge, especially when we’re doing large [30-40 lb] meter changes.”
Kelle has had similar experiences of people doubting her abilities. “You can’t be thin-skinned,” she said. “Guys may say you’re not that strong, and you just have to shrug that off. You just persevere.” Options are also limited for work gear and clothing. “I did a search for women’s construction pants and what comes up? Leggings.”
For Kelly, being a woman working mostly with men has helped her learn empathy. “It’s given me a really visceral understanding of what it’s like to be ‘other’ and that translates,’” she said. “You learn to be an advocate for yourself and for other people.”
Changing the industry
Nationally, women only make up 10% of all the people working in construction. At the water utility, women are underrepresented in construction-related positions. “We wouldn’t be doing a ‘Women in Construction’ thing if we were common,” said Kelly. “We need to actively recruit women, hire, train, mentor and promote them. Promote diversity of all types, and encourage a welcoming environment for all employees.”
"Society has created an expectation," says Kelly. "Growing up, all you see is men doing this kind of work. We have to start young and provide opportunities for on-the-job training. Women only make up 10% of people in construction and some companies don't hire any women. If you require experience, chances are low you'll get any women in the door. You also need to show that women can move up and have opportunities once they're hired."
All three women are active in improving our workplace for women and other underrepresented groups. Kelle and Kali attended the City of Madison’s Women+ Leadership Conference last year. Kelly and Kali are also members of the City of Madison’s equity team.
Advice for Women Starting Out
“Say yes to opportunities, especially those that might stretch you or are a little scary,” said Kelly. “Reach out and make a support network if you don't have one already. Look for mentors. It's great if you can find a woman, but be open to anyone who is willing to take you under their wing. It's really a web, not you solo.”
“Women are stronger than they think,” said Kelle. “More women could do this job. We have tools and equipment. You can ask for help. If you're intimidated by the equipment, you can practice. And don't be afraid to get dirty. That stuff always washes off.”
“Understand adversity,” said Kali. “Not everyone's going to want you to sit at the table but it's your time to pull up a chair. It's really important that we sit at the table now. I know there's a fear there, of rejection and of failure. It's taken me a long time to realize I only fail if I don't try."
If you’re considering a career at Madison Water Utility and/or the City of Madison, please visit cityofmadison.com/jobs to see available openings and also sign up for job updates.
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