Women in Erosion Control
“Snakes were everywhere,” said Danielle Kurek, CPESC, CESSWI, QSP/QSD (California), now doing independent consulting in environmental compliance and permitting through her own company, Buckeye Environmental in Dallas, Texas.
There were mainly rattlesnakes and a few others, some harmless, some not. “The guy I was working with spots a rattler that’s stuck on a dock going out to a retention pond. He yells, ‘I have to go get that one!’ and runs over and chops the snake’s head off. While he’s busy doing that, I’m running the other way,” says Kurek.
Granted, most of the time women working in the soil-erosion prevention and stormwater fields won’t run into deadly vipers on the job. As more and more women enter our industry, filling roles that used to be exclusively male, the barriers that had been placed in front of them are starting to disappear.
Not that there isn’t any bias. Although things are changing rapidly, a woman in any male-dominated field can still face that. These anti-female attitudes can be so subtle and ingrained that the men who have them may not even be conscious that they do. Gender bias often can’t be quantified, but your gut tells you it’s there, hissing somewhere out in the grass. All three of the women profiled in this story have dealt with it, each in her own way.
Kurek, a Toledo, Ohio native, says she “stumbled” into the field, after earning two degrees from the University of Toledo, graduating with a B.S. in environmental science and biology in 2007. This was followed in 2010 by an M.S. in biology and ecology with a focus on soil science.
Her mom was a science teacher, and her dad, a pharmacist, so it’s not surprising they steered her towards the sciences. Luckily, she had an aptitude for the subjects. “Science was what they knew. I think they also saw it as a secure and stable field,” Kurek said, adding that if her parents had their way, she’d be a pharmacist like Dad. But health-oriented biology and chemistry classes didn’t float her boat.
Her first job following grad school was at Infrastructure Alternatives, Inc. in Plainfield, Michigan, doing NPDES compliance at a wastewater treatment plant.
“I came from more of an academic research perspective as far as soil goes. Once I got into the environmental compliance field and started working, I gravitated towards stormwater and soil erosion, probably because it came back to what I’d studied.”
As for working in a testosterone-filled milieu, Kurek says there can be a few bad apples who’ll try to run you off a site, or worse. “It all depends on a company’s culture. A lot of firms won’t tolerate that type of behavior.”
On one particular job, she found herself the only female working alongside 100 men. Although she admits that there’s a certain amount of kidding around on any job, some of their “joking” comments made pointed reference to her femaleness and made her uncomfortable.
“If you don’t have a thick skin, and they can get a rise out of you, they can sense that. I’ve discovered that if you don’t cave in or bow down to that kind of stuff, eventually, they’ll respect you. In this case, if I’d become upset and quit, they would have won.”
Teresa Jakeway, CPESC, CPSWQ, CESSWI, QSD, is an environmental manager at Ames Construction, a heavy civil contractor headquartered in Burnsville, Minnesota. She works out of its office in Corona, California.
She’s been in the construction industry since graduating from high school, when she landed a job as a payables clerk at Gothic Landscape, Inc., a large company with branches in California, Arizona, Nevada and Utah. In addition to big commercial and government landscape projects, the company also has a division devoted to environmental restoration.
After 15 years, “I ended up as a grading manager, working with soil and learning about its characteristics. With all of the rules and regulations coming into play more and more over the years, it was just a natural transition from that into doing environmental work.”
She thinks part of what made her a success at Gothic, a family-owned business, was the fact that she grew up in one. Her family owned a general store in rural Rocky Mount, North Carolina, that eventually morphed into a popular restaurant called “Wesley’s Takeout,” serving fried chicken and North Carolina-style barbecue.
Jakeway explains, “My grandfather was born on the property, which was our homestead. The house and store were maybe a hundred feet apart. You’d walk out the back door of the house into the back door of the store.”
That experience gave Jakeway a strong work ethic. “We were never assigned a particular role. Whatever job needed to be done, you just did it. It opens your mind into looking at things in different ways.”
In 2004, she was recruited by Pardee Homes, where she was an environmental supervisor, leaving in 2006 when she was asked to run Centex Homes’ stormwater program. Her next job was with the County of Riverside, California, doing grading inspections and running their NPDES program.
While working for the county, a man she’d worked with at Centex asked her to join him at Ames.
“The company was opening a regional office in California, and I was hired to set up their environmental program. My specialty is stormwater, but I also facilitate their compliance with equipment emissions, biological and hazardous materials regulations—the whole gamut.”
When asked if she’s had any problems working with men on jobsites, Jakeway says, “That’s a wide-open question. But let me just say this: I love a good challenge.” One such challenge involved figuring out how to be understood by the boots-on-the-ground field workers.
She’s had to learn to speak their language, and to be direct and authoritative, using few descriptors, so there’s no ambiguity as to what she means. “I’m not out there with the guys who are moving the earth with heavy equipment; I’m just some woman who shows up one day and starts telling them what to do. So, until I can explain what needs to be done and why, in a way that makes sense to them, I’ll get resistance. I have to be able to show that I understand what their issues are.”
As for the other type of language women on the job sometimes hear, Jakeway says that the way that she speaks and carries herself draws a line in the sand. Her confident attitude creates unspoken rules about what’s acceptable to do and say and what isn’t.
After “doing the college thing,” earning a B.S. in environmental science from the University of Toledo, Lucille Herrick Snowden, 31, now an environmental manager at Knife River Corporation’s North Dakota Division in Bismarck, moved to Los Angeles. Unable to find a science-related job, she worked as a television and movie extra.
“I didn’t like it. It only paid $12 an hour, and besides, it wasn’t my career field. Even though I was out in Los Angeles with my boyfriend (who became her husband), I was very disappointed and unhappy. So, after about six months, I headed off to grad school.” That was Indiana University in Bloomington, where she earned an M.S. in environmental science with a focus on water resources.
“Once I had my Master’s, I was able to interview at the North Dakota Department of Health,” said Snowden. “Because of the oil boom, the state had positive job growth, so I figured it would be a good place to go.”
It was. She landed a job in stormwater. “My title was ‘Environmental Scientist II.’ It was my first ‘big-girl’ job, in the NPDES section, doing industrial and construction site permitting, and they just dumped me right in.” She stayed there for the next three-and -a-half years.
It wasn’t her first exposure to the field, however. That came via a college internship with the Ohio EPA, doing compliance inspections on construction sites.
“Looking back, I recognize that I didn’t understand very much,” said Snowden, “except to ask questions on a checklist, such as ‘How long has that piece of dirt been open? Where’s your silt fence?’ that kind of stuff.”
In regard to dealing with men, Snowden recalls one job, working with a North Dakota real estate developer, a man in his sixties.
Though he was quite prominent in the region, she, not being from the area, had never heard of him.
His company “got away with murder” for years and years, she said, speculating that he’d probably gotten accustomed to somewhat lax environmental regulation enforcement in that very business-friendly state.
Snowden remembers, “I show up, and say, ‘Hi, I’m new, and you’re not following the rules, so we’re going to take an enforcement action against you.’ And the first thing this man says is, ‘Don’t you know who I am? (and that I’m special and exempt from regulations?)’” Dealing with him allowed her to practice the demeanor of a regulatory person: professional, detached, unflappable. She learned to choose her words carefully, and not get flustered by anything he said.
“We met with this gentleman many, many times onsite. I’d say, ‘See all the dirt in this creek? That’s from your residential development. On page seven, paragraph two, it says you’re required to have these controls in place. Didn’t you read your permit?’” After a few of these encounters, the developer formulated a stock response: “I am not talking to that woman!” Of course, he could have reacted that way to any enforcement person—man or woman—who was pressing an issue. “Yes,” said Snowden, “but I definitely feel that some of the difficulty I had with this man stemmed from the fact that I was a woman; moreover, an educated one, who knew what she was talking about.”
Another example of subtle bias happens when a woman pitches an idea or solution in a meeting and has it ignored, only to hear the same essential suggestion come out of a male colleague’s mouth a few moments later, when it’s suddenly a terrific idea. Both Kurek and Jakeway have had that happen more than once.
Snowden, however, says she hasn’t really had that happen much, as she’s usually the one who’s interrupting others. She attributes her assertiveness to having been raised by a strong professional woman who now does ISO (International Organization for Standardization) certification consulting.
“You might not like me, and I won’t even notice. Most of the time when someone has an issue with me, I’m not thinking, ‘Oh, it’s because I’m a woman.’ I just figure they’ve got a bug up their rear today.”
Would they encourage other women to enter the field? All three of the women interviewed for this story said, “Yes.” Kurek, who’s 31, says that even though the older guys are still calling the shots, there are a lot more people around her age working at these companies now. As the senior group retires, these younger men and women will take their places, and things will continue to improve.
Jakeway says her career has been “incredibly rewarding, in both a personal and a monetary sense. I don’t think I would have changed a thing, even if I could.”
“If someone has a desire to pursue a career in this line of work, they should do it. But it’s not for someone who’s faint of heart or thin-skinned. If you’re not just looking for a job, but a career you can commit to, this is a great one.”
Snowden advises not specializing too narrowly at first, as you’ll need a lot of different skill sets, especially when it comes to landing that first entry-level job out of college.
She encourages any college student thinking of entering the profession to complete an internship like the one she served with the Ohio EPA. Even though it was just for one summer, it gave her enough knowledge to beat out the other competitors for that state of North Dakota job.
And, to her fellow Millennials, the texting generation, she says, work on those social skills! “Talk to everyone in the office. Ask, ‘How was your weekend? How’s your life?’ so your co-workers see you as human. It’s much more important than I thought it was when I started working,” she said, adding that she had to get over a fear of talking to people on the phone.
These women also encourage joining professional organizations and actively participating in them. Kurek is the chairperson of the International Erosion Control Association’s (IECA) Stormwater Management Track, and an “at-large” board member of its South Central U.S. chapter.
Jakeway is chair of the committee that oversees the IECA’s educational delivery programs. And Snowden is on the Board of Members of the North Dakota chapter of the North American Stormwater and Erosion Control Association (NASECA).
Our industry remains one that’s populated mainly by men, and will remain that way for some time. The women that seek these nontraditional careers know that going in, but they still go. They should be applauded for their courage and determination. And while some of these women may face on-the-job sexist attitudes and even sexual harassment, most will power through despite it, because that’s what pioneers do.
The future for women in our industry looks bright. Any woman who wants a well-paid and rewarding professional career in a growing field where she won’t be chained to a desk should consider this one. And while there may still be a few, nasty serpents slithering out there, these women are starting to crush them under their work boots.