Women in Soil Erosion
SOMETIMES IT’S HARD TO BE A woman,” sang country music queen Tammy Wynette. Those are, of course, the opening words to an old song called, “Stand by Your Man”—hardly a feminist anthem.
Some women are singing a different tune these days however; one that might open with the words, “It’s getting easier all the time to be a woman,” in the male-dominated milieu of soil erosion prevention work.
The five women interviewed for this story pretty much agree that despite a few bumps at first, they’ve been treated with respect by their male peers in the business. Of course, they’ve earned it, as a product of their knowledge, hard work and professionalism. The other thing they have in common? They all love what they do.
Sarah M. Haggard is a CPESC (Certified Professional in Erosion and Sediment Control), a QSD (Qualified SWPPP Developer), and a QSP (Qualified SWPPP Practitioner). She grew up in Bakersfield, California, where she still resides.
As a child, she loved “playing in the mud and the water,” unintentionally foreshadowing her future career. In school, science and math were her forte. Her bent toward Earth science may be geneticallybased. “After college, I moved into my late grandmother’s house. When I got there, I found out I’d inherited a bunch of rocks she’d collected.”
In junior college, she took a geology class “and loved it.” After trans ferring to Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, a couple of classes in erosion and sediment control hooked her on the soil sciences.
“My professor, Dr. Brent Hallock (professor of Natural Resources Management and Environmental Sciences), is very influential in this industry,” says Haggard. “He encouraged all of us students to attend conferences.” In 2005, he took her and other classmates to the International Erosion Control Association’s (IECA) confab in Dallas, Texas.
Graduating later that year with a B.A. in earth science and a minor in soil science, she celebrated by going to the next IECA conference and passing the CPESC exam. There, she made contact with the owners of Valencia, California-based Stormwater Resources, who subsequently hired her.
The 31-year-old single mother is currently finishing her master’s thesis in petroleum geology at California State University, Bakersfield.
As if that wasn’t enough to keep her busy, she’s also the owner of Deluge Consulting, the firm she started in 2010. “I love dealing with the regulations,” she says. “There are always new challenges to overcome on our projects. I’ve been in the industry since 2006, and I’m still constantly learning things.”
Seva Iwinski is operations manager at Applied Polymer Systems, Inc., in Woodstock, Georgia, a manufacturer of anionic polyacrylamide-based fish-safe soil erosion control products. She lived in Juneau, Alaska, until age 13. Her path into soil erosion work was a natural one. “My father started this company,” she said. “When we lived in Juneau, he was head environmental scientist at a mining corporation.”
“My sisters and I were proficient at tennis,” she continues. “My Dad didn’t think we’d be able to go anywhere with it in Juneau, so he decided to just pick up and move. Georgia was a great place to start a business, so he moved the family there.”
By “going somewhere,” her father had a destination in mind. “My parents sat us down one day and said, ‘You pick what you’re going to do, and stick with it,’” said Iwinski. “‘If we’re going to put all this time and money into lessons and driving you around, then you’re going to work your butts off, and this is how you’ll pay for college.” It worked; all three girls landed full-ride tennis scholarships.
Always good at math and science, she admits that, “as a child, I didn’t know what a polymer was, or anything about this industry.”
The turning point came when Iwinski was 14. “I went downstairs and saw my parents working in the garage, making these products at two in the morning. I watched my family grow with this business, and thought it was such an amazing thing. I just wanted to be a part of it.” Now she is, having joined the firm following graduation from Texas A & M with a B.S. in bioenvironmental science.
Angela S. Misir, CPESC, is project construction coordinator for Avon, Minnesota-based Blattner Energy, Inc. She grew up in New York City and attended Brooklyn Technical High School, majoring in environmental studies. Following graduation, she got a B.S. in environmental studies at St. John’s University, then an M.S. in environmental engineering technology/environmental technology at the New York Institute of Technology on Long Island.
“I’m not an engineer, but my master’s is geared toward engineering students,” Misir says. “I did a variety of different jobs through the years, before getting into erosion control. I worked at an environmental testing lab, at landfills, and did some consulting. As I started getting more involved in the soil erosion field, I got my CPESC, and then just kind of ran with it.”
This native New Yorker has seen a good bit of the country, thanks to her work. “I’ve been out in the Midwest, North Dakota, South Dakota,” she says. Currently, she’s stationed at a wind-turbine farm in the Mojave Desert. “This is a very good learning experience in the field, because it’s pretty strict out here in California, in terms of environmental regulations.”
Carrie Powers, CPESC, CMS4S (Certified Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System Specialist), and TECS (Transportation Erosion Control Supervisor), grew up in Rutland, a rural area in central Massachusetts. “I spent all my time outdoors in the creeks and woods,” she said, “riding my bike with the neighborhood kids, or sledding in the winter.”
When she was 20, her fiancée got a job in Boulder, Colorado, so she followed him there, enrolling in the University of Colorado.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up, so I majored in business,” said Powers. One day, a friend asked what she was passionate about; she couldn’t answer.
Suddenly, it started snowing. “I jumped up, and said, ‘Oh, it’s snowing! I love snow, I love the weather!’” Her friend said, “Well, there’s your passion.”
Having enjoyed a geography class, she ended up graduating with a degree in the subject. “It’s a huge field that includes climatology,” she said. “At UC, that major also had large geology, hydrology, and geomorphology components to it, with environmental science thrown in.”
When Powers’ husband got a job in Texas, she started looking for jobs at environmental consulting firms. She was hired by Dallas’ Paradigm Engineering. “I kind of fell into stormwater, doing inspections on construction sites for about five months.”
When the fast-growing company needed someone to train inspectors, she was tapped. Promoted to senior process auditor, she traveled all over the country, learning all the various state’s stormwater regulations. Paradigm wanted to promote her yet again, but she confessed that in six months, she wanted to be back in Colorado. So valuable was she to the company that they created a position for her there.
In 2011, Powers started her own Denver-based consulting business, CP Compliance, LLC, where she helps municipalities meet stormwater permit requirements. The 36- year-old splits her time between that and a job as the city of Glendale’s stormwater specialist. “In meetings, I say, ‘I am the stormwater department,’” she laughs.
Christine Williams, CPESC, QSD, and CESSWI (Certified Erosion, Sediment and Storm Water Inspector), is environmental coordinator for C.C. Myers, Inc., a heavy-construction firm in Rancho Cordova, California. She’s always been in the building field, spending the first eight years of her career working for a residential contractor. She then moved into highway construction, where she’s been for the past for 15 years, working her way up to her current job.
She says, “I’m interested in the environmental part of this, because it’s a problem that needs a solution, and I’m attracted by that.”
All five have encountered certain hurdles familiar to a lot of women who enter non-traditional fields. “Starting my career as a woman in the construction industry in Texas was a challenge,” recalls Powers. “One day, I was in a truck with a male co-worker who was my age. We drove onto a construction site. He introduced me to the site superintendent, saying, “This is Carrie; I’m training her.” The superintendent said, “Oh, so this is your new secretary.”
Then there are the moments when one is the only woman in a meeting room, tossing out a suggestion that’s met with silence. Until, five minutes later, a male colleague echoes the same thought, and gets a back-slapping, “Great idea, Joe!” When Haggard is asked if that’s ever happened to her, she gives a knowing laugh. “Yeah, I’ve had that happen.”
“When I started out, I was a young woman, 23, and green in the industry,” recalls Haggard. “I know that people didn’t take me seriously. And, coming to a site as an environmental person—that already has a stigma to it, right? So, yeah; I’d have site superintendents that’d lock their trailer doors, or vehicles leaving the site as soon as they saw my car, because they just didn’t want to have to deal with me.”
“But I learned the regulations extremely well, and how to hold my own. You can’t be a passive person in this industry, because there are a lot of very dominant, aggressive people in it,” Haggard adds. “You’ll just be walked all over.”
When asked if she ever felt shut out by male colleagues, Misir says, “I did struggle with that right at first. You can’t speak too forcefully, because they’ll say, ‘Oh, well, she’s just crabby, I can’t take her seriously.’ But you can’t speak too softly, either.”
“I’ve managed to gain the respect of my co-workers by just going out there and talking about how we can make things work, stay within compliance, and not break the bank doing it,” Misir says. “We have to make our clients happy, and at the same time, try to make money. Somewhere, there’s a happy medium.”
She feels that men do accept her as one of them, now that she’s established her ‘cred.’ “You have to show that you have a commonsense approach,” says Misir. “It’s easy to look at a permit or the regulations and go strictly by the book. That’s where the challenges come in.”
“What works best for me,” she continued, “is talking to the crew members on a project site and making connections with them individually. You start relationships with people so that later, when you’re with them in a group, and you talk, they’ll listen.”
“I’m a little bit sensitive,” admits Misir. “People who go into the environmental field have a certain level of caring. You may have a softness about you that doesn’t do you a lot of good in a male-dominated field.”
Dress for success
“Looking the part” is also important; something men don’t have to think about as much. Iwinski shared this story: “One of our distributors, but someone I’d never met before, came up to me at a recent IECA conference. He said, ‘Thank you for being dressed.’” Nonplussed at the comment, she responded, “Excuse me?” The man continued, saying, “Have you seen some of the women in here? Thank you for being covered up.”
Iwinski admits that, “I’m like any other girl; I like to put on dresses and go to weddings. However, when I’m in a meeting, giving a presentation, or in our booth at a trade show, I’m not in big, fun heels; I never wear skirts, and I don’t wear shirts that show anything off.” She adds, “Dress professionally, and you’ll be treated professionally.”
Being a woman can be an advantage, especially when disputes arise. Where men will often butt heads, trying to establish which buck has the bigger set of antlers, women tap into their emotional intelligence. “When I was managing inspectors, I’d get calls saying, ‘I don’t want this guy on my site ever again,’ said Powers. “That never happened with any of the women. If they noticed someone grumbling, they’d say, “Do you have a problem with this? Let’s talk it out, and hear your ideas.”
Williams says, “A lot of times, you have to have a different attitude than your male counterparts in order to get the same results. You have to be less aggressive, I guess, or aggressive at different times. You need to know when to pick your fights.”
“My motto is, ‘Do I want to be right, or do I want to be happy?’ If I have a job I need to get done, I may have to take an alternate path to get there.”
The face of the industry is changing rapidly. “When I went to my first IECA conference, back in 2005, it was all men; there were maybe, three women there,” recalls Haggard. “I just went to the last one, in Nashville, and saw so many women. Not only that, but the age has started to go down. It’s no longer dominated by people in their 40s, 50s and 60s. You’re starting to see more people in their 30s now.”
Is soil erosion a good field for women to go into? All five of the women we talked to responded with an unqualified, “Yes!” If Iwinski had a daughter, she’d encourage her to enter the field. “This isn’t a glamorous industry, but it’s a profession you can be proud of. You’ll learn a lot, and have a lot of experiences that other people won’t. If she was interested in science, or anything that has to do with construction, I’d say, for sure, do it.”
Women looking for a growth field to enter will find plenty of opportunities, with the economy starting to move again and the increased construction that goes along with that.
“The need for soil erosion professionals is only going to go up, because every state is starting to get strict, just like California,” said Misir. “All the states are starting to follow the trend, so every single construction project over an acre is going to need a stormwater permit.”
Powers encourages women to get involved in the industry’s various professional organizations, such as the IECA. “In some of these groups, there can still be kind of an ‘old boy’s club,’” she admits. “Still, I’ve met some brilliant, strong women through attending conferences; women that have become mentors to me. Networking is critical.”
Women who choose to follow in this group’s muddy footsteps just may find a profession with no “glass ceiling” or “Mommy track.” For those who hold up half the sky, Misir says, “The sky’s the limit.”