Cracking the Water Industry's Glass Ceiling

Female utility executive works hard to attract more women to the water industry.

Cracking the Water Industry's Glass Ceiling

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As a high schooler, Doa Ross could’ve just as easily followed the stereotypical career path more frequently traveled by young women decades ago and become a cosmetologist.

Instead, she earned an engineering degree and now is the deputy general manager of engineering at the Las Vegas Valley Water District.

“When I walked onto the University of Nevada, Las Vegas campus for the first time, I declared my major and never changed my path,” she says.

The factors that influenced her career choice — things such as job portability, competitive pay and a chance to serve a community — illustrate the buttons utility recruiters could push as they try to make water-industry careers more appealing to women. They also underscore the importance of community outreach in spreading the word to girls and young women, a message Ross never heard as a young woman.

“Unfortunately, I didn’t have any guidance or influence to pursue engineering,” she says. “If I had listened to my high school counselor, I would have gone to beauty school.

“But during my senior year, I took the military’s vocational aptitude test and scored the highest in engineering,” she continues. “That’s when I started to investigate careers in engineering.”

Ross, 47, went on to earn a civil-engineering degree at UNLV. After graduation, she worked at an engineering firm for two years before joining the LVVWD as an assistant water engineer in 2000.

Appealing careers

Many factors influenced her decision to become an engineer and enter the water industry, and they’re items recruiters at water utilities should take to heart as they try to convince women to come aboard.

“I wanted a career that I’d be able to take anywhere in the country, or even the world,” she says. “Something that didn’t depend on my age, appearance, race and so forth.

“I wanted something that paid well enough to comfortably support myself and my family,” she adds. “And I wanted a job that would not be replaced by a computer and that I could be proud of by giving back to the community.”

Women remain underrepresented in the water industry (except for administrative/clerical positions). And while women make up nearly 47% of workers across all occupations nationwide, they account for only about 15% of the water workforce, according to a 2018 Brookings Institution report.

Nonetheless, the industry is well-positioned to improve on that dynamic, given that it faces an unprecedented wave of retirees that will leave room for women to backfill their ranks. And if the water industry is going to make headway on gender equality, it would behoove its leaders to more actively engage female mentors and reach out to younger females as early as possible, she says.

Mentors matter

Ross is doing both. “I’ve had mentors and I’ve been a mentor,” she says. “There’s definitely a tight relationship among the women in our organization, in both the technical and nontechnical fields, we look out for each other.”

Ross also makes time to give presentations about engineering opportunities for women at the UNLV career center and at meetings of the Society for Women Engineers. The title of her presentation is Breaking the Mold of a Traditional Engineer.

“And every time I do so, I also bring one or more women in technical fields along so they too can speak about their experiences,” she adds. “If we can show the world that women can be successful in water and wastewater industries, then we help change the mentality and mindset about what people expect engineers to look like.

“We want to show potential employees that what they see is what we’re trying to promote — diversity, equality, equal pay (compared to men) and equal chances to demonstrate their skills and abilities.”

Spreading the word

Ross also has volunteered at summer camps for middle-school girls interested in science, technology, engineering and math careers.

“I tell them how I became interested in this career and the path I took to get here,” she explains. “It lets them know there are opportunities out there beyond what their advisers might tell them about.

“We have to change the mantra at that level … there’s not a lot of influence at the high school level to encourage young women to enter traditionally male-dominated fields.”

The value of diversity can’t be underestimated. If every water utility employee came from the same background and had the same education and life experiences, they’d all tend to come to the same design solutions, Ross points out.

“When you have different backgrounds and educations, you get different perspectives and innovations and break away from that we’ve-always-done-it-this-way mentality,” she says.

Slow but steady success

Careers in the water industry should be attractive to women, for many reasons, experts opine. There’s the environmental stewardship angle, which should resonate with females. Job openings should be more plentiful in the coming years in the wake of retiring, and largely male, baby boomers. Many jobs don’t require expensive four-year degrees and the pay is competitive.

So what’s the problem? For starters, there’s the aforementioned lack of awareness of opportunities for women. Then there’s the time element; changing perceptions just doesn’t happen overnight, she notes.

But overall, Ross says she sees signs that gender equity is quietly happening, both at LVVWD and other agencies.

As an example, Ross points to a global conference she attended in November 2019 in Houston. Leading utilities were asked to nominate next-generation water-industry leaders and Ross was one of four future leaders chosen to speak at the conference. The topic: Envisioning the ideal water utility in the year 2050.

At the conference, she received a pleasant surprise.

“All four of the presenters were women,” she says. “So I don’t see myself at all as a unicorn in the industry. This is the wave of the future. We have to start looking at people for what they have to offer as opposed to what they look like.

“It’s hard to bend the curve,” she says. “There’s no doubt it will take time. But it’s happening.” 


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