Will the Wastewater Gender Gap Become a Thing of the Past?

Will the Wastewater Gender Gap Become a Thing of the Past?

The Women in Wastewater Roundtable helps women feel more comfortable in the industry.


"I want to talk to the man in charge."

Even in the 21st century, that's a request many wastewater companies still get when they answer the phone. And, of course, in this day and age, the "man in charge" might actually be a woman.

That's no surprise to Joyce Gresh, director of operations for Cape Cod Biochemical Company in Massachusetts. She served as moderator of this year's Women in Wastewater Roundtable at the Water & Wastewater Equipment, Treatment & Transport (WWETT) Show and was on the panel in 2015 as well.

She says that question is still prevalent, but for the industry it's a matter of educating the public on the dynamics of today's wastewater industry. "I do see things turning around, but not all that much," she admits.

This is the second year the WWETT Show has featured the roundtable, the brainchild of Lara Mottolo, vice president of Service Pumping and Drain of Massachusetts.

"(The panel) is not necessarily to highlight the challenges [women face], but rather the benefits and value of being a woman in the industry," says Mottolo, who is following in the footsteps of her father, Dick, who has been in the industry since 1972.

"We wanted to take a cross section of women … fielding specific questions about what they do every day. To be honest, we really haven't touched too much on the challenges of being a woman (in the business)."

Mottolo says about 50 people attended the roundtable; she estimates that about 25 percent of the attendees were men. "I did get the sense that we kind of hit on something where (the women in the audience) really wanted to talk," says Mottolo, "and felt more comfortable asking questions of other women."

That said, Mottolo adds, "I was very careful to set the tone as being inclusive rather than exclusive." She underscored her belief that "talent bubbles to the top naturally; it's not even a question of gender anymore.

"The gender thing," she says, "we try to deal with carefully … to [spotlight] some professionals that just happen to be women."

If a woman attends the roundtable, for example, Mottolo wants her to realize she, too, can do the job and advance in her career - just like Mottolo did, even though the septic industry was not her first career choice.

"They might hear these women speak [and think] ‘I can identify,'" she says, adding that she's been on the job for nine years, but she did feel a gender gap when she entered the industry. But that's where education comes in, she adds. "The more I knew [about the wastewater business], the less of an issue gender became."

Gresh comments that while the industry may be moving in that direction, it's not quite there yet. "We still have the old attitudes … I don't think that bridge has been broken yet," she says, noting that those attitudes can come both from the public as well as from men in the industry.

She recalls one man coming to the roundtable "trying to figure out how to work with" and how to "deal with" the women coming into the industry.

But while Gresh says many of the women coming to her booth at the WWETT Show are strong and independent, "There are some that are right behind their men. I don't think some women are totally comfortable in that situation."

Gresh says that issue hit home when one woman approached her after the panel asking, "What do you do if your spouse dies?" This woman had recently lost her husband and, in the process, gained his business.

It's a situation more women may find themselves facing if they take a back seat - as opposed to an equal one - in the family business.

Hitting on topical issues
While gender was an obvious issue, the 45-minute roundtable really ended up being a conversation about much broader issues, Mottolo says. It followed the "how-to" track, she says, relating to sales, operations, technology, marketing "and what comes out of that naturally."

"The most specific questions I got were about implementing technology - what we're using, how it works," she says.

Mottolo also fielded questions on balancing motherhood and management. For her, she says, "It wound up being a good thing for our business because it forced me to delegate. We've actually grown in sales 12 percent each year."

After she started having her children, Mottolo realized she needed to hand off some of her duties, and that ended up being the best thing. "It's almost counterproductive to do it all," she admits.

"It makes sense that you put the right person in the right position," she adds. "That was a huge lesson for us and a really big benefit."

Mottolo looks back on the WWETT Show over the years and notes seeing more and more women in the crowd. "We are almost half the industry now in different capacities," she estimates.

So it may be time to finally put that question of speaking with the "man in charge" to rest. And hosting the roundtable each year is a good start.

"I think the panel is extremely valuable," says Gresh. "The [industry] needs to acknowledge the women in this industry, and they need to take it one step further." She is advocating for starting an award for women in the industry.

"It's no longer the job of you go out and you pump someone's tank and it's over. It's not like that anymore. The industry has changed."

By Sharon Verbeten
Courtesy of Pumper Magazine
March 28, 2016

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