Gender Parity in Public Works


It is refreshing to see women’s issues raising to the fore with highly publicized, Hollywood-led campaigns such as #MeToo and #TimesUp. For the first time in a long time, women’s issues are headline news on a global scale. March 8th is International Women’s Day and this year the theme was #PressForProgress; it’s a reminder to keep motivated and demand gender parity.

Vancouver Island celebrates these phenomenal women in public works #PressForProgress!

Vancouver Island celebrates these phenomenal women in public works #PressForProgress!

So, where are we now? The World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap Report reviewed the gaps between women and men in four key categories: health, education, economy and politics. It found that the global gender gap stands at 68 per cent, meaning that globally women are 32 per cent less equal to men in the aforementioned categories.

Interestingly, Canada and the U.S. were ranked as the 16th and 49th most equal countries respectively out of the 144 countries indexed. Both of them scored comparatively well when it came to economic parity with Canada ranked as 10th most equal (73 per cent parity) and the U.S. ranked 3rd (75 per cent parity). However, when looking at contextual data relevant to public works, both countries demonstrated that they were doing a poor job of encouraging women to enter into post secondary degrees that generate the public works leaders of tomorrow with only 22 and 19 per cent of engineering and construction graduates being female in Canada and the U.S. This is important because one of the keys to closing the economic opportunity gap has been identified as having more women in charge. The report shows that when women are participating in leadership roles, more women are hired right across the board at all levels.

There is no better time for us in the public works arena to use International Women’s Day as an opportunity to unite, celebrate and advocate for women in public works. With this in mind, I took the opportunity to speak to three female public works leaders in my chapter and asked them what they think it takes to be a successful woman in our industry, what changes they have seen and how we can advocate for more women in our field.

What attracted you to Public Works?

Susan: It’s important work, elemental to society. I also like working with practical, resourceful people who take pride in doing a great job. People in public works like to get stuff done!

Jen: I never thought about becoming an engineer. There was a boy in my class who was going to pursue a career in engineering, I thought, “I can do that too.” My other options would have been a lawyer or a doctor; I am glad I opted for engineer. It is so rewarding to serve my community.

Nikii: When I was given the opportunity to do construction for the greater good—as opposed to completely for profit—it was a great fit for me.

What do you think women bring to public works?

Susan: Women advocate for new approaches, and have great problem solving and listening skills.

Jen: A totally different perspective and an ability to marry community with operations. Women have real insight when it comes to what the community wants. Women’s ideas make their community better to live in. I dis-like the attitude of “we do it this way because we’ve been doing this way for ever;” women can change that.

Nikii: Honestly, what we bring to the field is no different to what men in public works bring—a desire to better a community and make a difference in people’s everyday lives.

Do you think public works is ready for more women and what opportunities do you think public works offers women?

Susan: In most cases, public works is ready for more women, especially larger organizations. Smaller organizations may be less ready as they may have less experience of hiring women.

Jen: Public works is ready for more women. The sooner the better; women are very much under represented. There is no reason why women can’t work in this field. Public works offers women the opportunity to mould their community and bring benefits that may not have been thought of without a woman.

Nikii: Yes, I absolutely feel that public works is ready for more women and I have been very lucky to have worked with some absolutely stellar women in various roles in public works. Public works offers a living wage, great benefits and a team atmosphere. There is a great sense of accomplishment and pride that comes from ensuring that the public enjoys the wonderful parks, facilities and infra-structure that is there to serve them.

What do you think are the barriers between women and public works?

Susan: It depends upon the organization but a lot of times the entry level jobs involve physical labour. The barrier is how we choose to bring people into public works. Women excel in technical and equipment operator positions.

Jen: It’s not typically or historically considered “women’s work.” Trades, for example, are not typically attractive to women. We can do much to change this by encouraging young women to consider these areas during their education.

Nikii: I think most of the barriers now are self-imposed—it simply isn’t thought about as a career path by women as much as it historically has been by men. I think we have to actively promote this career path in schools and at a young age, like primary school outreach.

Have you seen attitudes towards women in the public works workplace change?

Susan: Change has been sporadic and depends upon the size of the organization. The more women an organisation has the better it will be. The first woman may struggle and will have to prove herself.

Jen: Attitudes are changing and I have seen improvements in the last 15 years that I have been with the city. I remember one time I was out at a work function with the CAO who is male, many people automatically assumed I was there with him on a personal level and were surprised when they learned I was the Director of Public Works. It saddens me, and I wonder why people would be surprised.

Nikii: Definitely. The “old boys club” reputation was absolutely earned. However, as more women are employed in public works, this naturally dissipates Also, new employees, both male and female, have very different opinions about gender-based roles than some of their predecessors.

Do you have any tips for women on how they can excel in the public works arena?

Susan: Play to your strengths, don’t try to emulate your male counterparts. Don’t let men define what “tough” means.

Jen: It is important that women in public works connect with one another. If you have a problem, it is likely that there will be a woman that will have come through it already. We can help each other and it is important to take advantage of that.

Nikii: Be yourself, ask questions and listen to the answers. Be the one with the best skills, knowledge and ability to do the work, get hired on merit, and get promoted on merit. Make sure you can do all aspects of the job you apply for, and be willing to learn the things you don’t know. All of the women that I know who excel in public works have three things in common; they work really hard as a part of a team, they ask questions when they don’t know the answers and provide feedback to others when they think it would be of value, and they come to work with a great attitude—exactly the same recipe for success as for men.

By Charlotte Davis, City of Nanaimo
Charlotte Davis is the Manager of Sanitation, Recycling and Public Works Administration, for the City of Nanaimo, British Columbia.

Susan Clift provides consultancy services to municipalities in the area of public works and engineering. She worked at the City of Vancouver for 25 years where she had the accolade of being the first female engineer ever hired and more recently, she served as the director of Public Works and Engineering at the City of Nanaimo and City of Colwood.

Jen Fretz is the Director of Public Works and Utilities for the City of Kamloops. Jen is an engineer who started out in the private sec-tor and has been with Kamloops since 2004, where she progressed through a variety of pub-lic works managerial roles to her current role.

Nikii Hoglund is Director of Engineering and Public Works at the City of Colwood. Prior to working in the municipal world, Nikii worked in the private sector in the civil construction and rail industries. She has managed projects in New Zealand, Australia and Peru. Closer to home, Nikii’s first public works role was with the City of Richmond. She has also held roles in North Vancouver, Lions Bay and Sechelt.


The Global Gender Gap Report 2017. World Economic Forum (2017) GGGR_2017.pdf