Closed Circuit

​Story and photo by Ashley Cumiford

On Nov. 5-6, WAPA and the Bureau of Reclamation hosted the Women in Water & Energy Professional Development Event in Park City, Utah, to engage in meaningful conversation about the issues that women and men face in the workplace and provide them with the tools and strategies needed for creating inclusive organizations.

On the first day the audience heard from two prominent key note speakers: Administrator and CEO Mark A. Gabriel and Reclamation’s Commissioner Brenda Burman. 

Burman opened the event with her unique life story. She recalled being a young girl, caring for horses in the torrid Arizona desert where water was scarce. She used to carry buckets of water to the horses. She discussed taking “every test” to tell her what she should be in life. When she scored well on the Law School Admission Test, she decided to embark on a career in water and energy law.

Her most life-changing career opportunity came when she worked in Congress as legislative counsel in water and energy for Arizona Senator Jon Kyl. She spoke of being frightened of this opportunity, but emphasized the importance of never saying no and implored attendees to “jump in.”

For Burman, doing the scary thing resulted in an impressive career trajectory, landing her where she is today.

Gabriel shifted gears, providing insight into what life was like as a young man entering the workforce. He reflected on his first job; as a young boy, he checked books at the local library in Teaneck, New Jersey. His supervisor, the “quintessential” female librarian, tasked Gabriel with reading books to children, including The Little Engine That Could. While his male counterparts were working in trades, Gabriel was already learning to break through gender barriers.

He then focused on the impacts that several important women have made in his personal life, from an aunt who was the first female reconstructive plastic surgeon in the U.S. to a mother who became a successful entrepreneur.

His story reminded attendees of the important roles women play in the workforce and the need for support from male counterparts to create inclusive spaces.

Professionals define industry trends, best practices

Leading a series of presentations was Women’s Leadership Institute CEO Patricia Jones. She said that promoting women into leadership roles positively impacts a company’s overall monetary value and growth.

For example, a McKinsey & Company report from 2018 found that companies with women on executive teams are more likely to lead industry on value creation and gain above-average profitability. But, Jones asks, “Where are the women?”

There are broader concerns, as well. In the wake of the sociocultural #MeToo movement, some men are confused about “the rules,” being unsure of how to interact with women, feeling “reverse discrimination” and fearing harassment allegations or being wrongly blamed.

Jones aimed to empower attendees by providing a framework of knowledge about the physiological differences between women and men. Emerging neuroscience identifies just how different the cognitive processes between the two are. For example, they process stress differently; men tend to shut down and women tend to prefer talking it out.

Understanding one another in the workplace may be the first step toward more-strategic communication and gender inclusion.

Kathleen Nalty, a nationally renowned consultant for inclusion and diversity, furthered Jones’ message that shifting a company’s cultural narrative is pivotal for growth in the 21st century.

Nalty hooked the audience with an intensive workshop on unconscious bias. Her goal was to interrupt employees’ “blind spots,” which often undermine inclusion and diversity from the start.

“Individuals can be two persons at the same time, operating on autopilot with a conscious and unconscious bias,” said Nalty.

Attendees took part in several exercises and implicit-association tests identifying their biases and learning to move beyond their prevailing lenses. The presentation was eye opening for a number of attendees.

“Inclusiveness is not an occasional act,” she said. “It is a constant attitude and practice.”

CEO of Jacques & Associates Sydne Jacques, who is also a former Reclamation engineer, suggested that winning cultures begin with strong leadership. She said that leaders can engage in best practices such as creating compelling visions, collecting data to assist teams in making better culture decisions, collaborating to design an improved culture, constructing and implementing the critical elements of a culture by design and celebrating often.

Peers share real-life experiences

On day two, attendees heard from two panels with guest speakers representing a broad spectrum of careers and positions.

The first panel, Career Pathing, saw panelists shedding light on how they were able to get to where they are today. WAPA Senior Vice President and Rocky Mountain Regional Manager Dawn Roth Lindell spoke about how she “didn’t have a plan,” and emphasized the importance of being a problem solver and building trust with employees.

Reclamation Phoenix Area Manager Leslie Meyers dug into personal questions women might ask themselves. For example, who they want their daughters to be.

“We are all role models and everything we do matters,” she emphasized. “People are watching.”

In the second panel, Cultural Diversity, Reclamation General Counsel and Upper Colorado River Commissioner for New Mexico Amy Hass began by defining culture as “a community, reinforced on a daily basis.”

“Inclusive workplaces are not a passion,” she said. “They are an expectation which yields a better product.”

WAPA Chief Strategy Officer Jennifer Rodgers added that culture impacts the everyday lives of career women. “People are the mission, and culture is what people experience,” she said. 

WAPA Administrative Assistant Roberta Sweeney reflected on the necessary evolution of company culture and inclusion, likening it to the evolution of food across America.

“We all have something in common that we can share, and food is often that medium,” she said. “As we share in food, we also open ourselves to others for learning and sharing more about each other. We can open ourselves to welcoming others and, in turn, appreciate each for their contribution.”

“Be a salad,” Sweeney concluded. “Not a stew!” 

Note: Cumiford is a secretary on detail to Public Affairs.

Reclamation and WAPA staff speak on a panel on day 2 of the Women in Water and Energy event in Park City, Utah, Nov. 5-6. Panelists discussed their career paths and building inclusive culture.

Reclamation and WAPA staff speak on a panel on day 2 of the Women in Water and Energy event in Park City, Utah, Nov. 5-6. Panelists discussed their career paths and building inclusive culture. 

Last modified on March 7th, 2024