In this episode of Engineering Legends, we celebrate International Women in Engineering Day by sharing advice and experiences from two trailblazing female engineers who have successfully navigated leadership growth and development for both private and municipal organizations and who are doing their part to influence and help other women and minorities to rise within the science and water industries. Special guests Liz Girardi-Schoen, Global Environmental Sustainability Leader for Pfizer Inc. and Pam Elardo, New York City Department of Environment Deputy Commissioner for the Bureau of Wastewater Treatment, share their upbringing, experiences, advice, and resources to help women advance in traditionally male-dominated fields.
Kelly Rogers: Live from New York, it’s Engineering Legends.
Tiffany Long: Hi, everyone. Welcome to the Engineering Legends Podcast. I’m Tiffany Long, here with my co-host,
Kelly Rogers: Kelly Rogers, here in Brown and Caldwell’ New York City office here in Midtown Manhattan.
Tiffany Long: Yep. We started this podcast about a year ago and this is the first time we are all live together and in the same room.
Kelly Rogers: Yeah. Usually it’s dogs under the tables with pajamas, but we are just real people here today. So we’re really excited.
Tiffany Long: That’s right. And we’re doing this for a special episode to celebrate International Women In Engineering Day, which is today, June 23rd. In honor of this annual holiday, we’re excited to welcome today’s guests, Pam Elardo, New York City, DEP, Deputy Commissioner for the Bureau of Wastewater Treatment, and Liz Girardi-Schoen, Pfizer Corporation’s Global Environmental Sustainability Leader.
Kelly Rogers: The Society for Women Engineers, or SWE, sponsors International Women In Engineering Day so the women of yesterday and today can inspire future women by celebrating their achievements and raising awareness for equal representation in engineering.
Tiffany Long: The same organization, SWE, reported in a 2018 survey that only 15% of engineers are women.
Kelly Rogers: And we’d like to do our part to change that.
Tiffany Long: That’s right.
Kelly Rogers: So the focus of today’s episode will be talking to two trail blazing guests about their experiences rising to leadership in the engineering and science industry, mentorship to other women, and strategies to continue to promote gender equality. So let’s get started with some introductions. We can start with you, Pam. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Pam Elardo: Sure. Like you said, I work for Department of Environmental Protection in New York City. I’m the Deputy Commissioner for the wastewater service area, the entirety of the nine plus million people who come around New York City every day. So I’ve been here six years. And I grew up in the environmental engineering type field, started in the state of Washington, eventually ran the wastewater system for metropolitan Seattle area, and then landed in New York City to do the biggest, baddest, best, craziest scale of them all. So this is why I’m here today.
Kelly Rogers: Fantastic. Liz?
Liz Girardi-Schoen: Oh, pleasure to meet everyone. So Liz Girardi-Schoen. I’m the Global Environmental Sustainability Leader for Pfizer. And I have a long history with Pfizer, but a bit of a boomerang in the middle. So I’m a chemical engineer by training. And I started in what was Pfizer’s Brooklyn plant at the time, manufacturing chemicals, and then pharmaceuticals. And then I helped form the Environmental Program for Pfizer back then. And I left Pfizer in 2008 in the midst of big restructuring. I did some consulting. I worked for a solar power company as their head of environment, and then for Teva, another pharma company, and then back at Pfizer for the past four years. So I’m happy to say Pfizer’s environmental program’s been around probably as long as I have, because I helped form it. And happy to be here.
Kelly Rogers: So we’d love to hear about your rise to leadership, a little bit about your journey―how you got here. So when you began your career, did you ever imagine that you’d have a role in leadership? Was that something you aspired to?
Pam Elardo: I would be shocked if I saw myself where I’m at, as a young person. I didn’t expect it. I didn’t dream of it. I feel like it didn’t seem like a tangible reality to me, as a young engineer at all. And then it just started to happen slowly, over time. So I didn’t see myself there, no. I’d love to have my young self meet up with me now to say, “Hey, you’re going to do that.” And that would be pretty inspirational.
Kelly Rogers: Were you encouraged to aspire to those types of things as a child?
Pam Elardo: No, no, no. I mean, I had a sort of conservative, pretty sexist type upbringing. And my expectation for my family and the surrounding was whatever you do depends on who you get married to, that kind of thing. Even going to engineering school, I heard, “Well do you know that’s a man’s job?” For me, luckily, I had a skill set, loved math and science, and had a passion for the environment. And that’s what I hung onto. And I think luckily, that’s what kind of drove me to the field I ultimately ended up in.
Liz Girardi-Schoen: Yeah. So I was thinking about a lot of stereotypes maybe with my Italian family upbringing. But ours was very much an egalitarian household. Because my dad used to say, “there were seven of us in the house, five kids and the parents. Seven days in the week, so everybody washed dishes one day.” So it was an interesting thing. Bless my father. But part of it, too, was that I was encouraged to believe I could do whatever I wanted. And so I thought I could. So did I think I’d end up being where I am? Well, not necessarily. But I was encouraged to believe, and I did, and I do. You can do whatever you set yourself up for. So that’s kind of how I came into it. Did I know where I’d end up exactly? Well, probably not. But also, first one in my family to go to college, first one in my family to graduate college, and I’m not the oldest one. But encouraged to do whatever I set myself up to do. And that was very much from my parents and the way we were raised.
You were talking about engineering, though. One thought I had when you said that: I never thought I’d get married, because I figured nobody was going to marry an engineer that was a woman. Which is funny, because I’m married, I have four kids. Been married a long time.
Tiffany Long: That is funny. So what do you think has been the biggest barrier or motivators you’ve experienced as a female leader in a technical, male-dominated industry?
Liz Girardi-Schoen: So, I suppose you could say it was hard because I was always the lone woman in the room for a long time. But I would say the hardest thing is to find your voice, right? So maybe you don’t speak the same way, maybe you don’t think the same way, but you have to find a way to communicate if you want to be heard. And so sometimes that meant, honestly, letting somebody think it was their idea. But when it came out of their mouth and they thought it was a good idea, I would go, “Yeah.” And then sometimes, maybe I would be annoyed and take credit for the idea, but it’s more about making sure the good things happen, that the good ideas are heard, whether or not I got the credit for them. Which maybe, that is sort of a way that we (women) were suppressed over time. But if the good ideas came out, then I was pretty okay with that.
Pam Elardo: Yeah. I mean, I think there have been, and still are, a lot of barriers. And when I think about my history when I first started as a young engineer in the United States…or actually, when I worked in the Peace Corps right after college. So that was another different experience from the gender standpoint. But the first place I worked in, there was actually men who had girly posters in their offices and stuff on public facing bulletin boards that were really not appropriate. And so I didn’t feel comfortable being there. And so it takes a level of courage to put up with that. And the thing that’s sad to me is for every woman who does, there’s lots who just don’t want to, and that’s totally understandable. To be told, “you can’t be an engineer because it’s a man’s job,” well, a good percentage of young women or girls are just going to decide not to do it. And to me, that’s terribly sad.
And unfortunately, it’s still a problem. Just last month I spoke to a group of students at Stony Brook. And it was STEM women. It was women studying STEM, as in historical context, and what it means for them. And I asked them to go around the room and tell me a little about themselves. And 80% of them were not encouraged by their families, or they were questioned by their communities to be where they’re at. So it’s not over. There’s still a big challenge. And that’s kind of a cultural, systemic burden or barrier, as you put it. Yeah.
Liz Girardi-Schoen: So you’re reminding me with the posters. So my first job was in the Brooklyn plant for Pfizer. And I was a supervisor in the manufacturing plant, which had 300 guys old enough to be my father and/or grandfather. And they were used to having a young engineer as their supervisor, but not with a ponytail. So that was the difference for me.
And walking around the plant the first day, there were calendars all over the place. And you’re right. I was not happy. But honestly, just kept my head up and kept walking. The miracle was—now here is a great story of somebody that helped me early in those days—the following day they were gone. And I didn’t learn until years later that the foreman who was the first line supervisor―rest his soul, what a great guy—he made them all disappear. And he later told me long after, years later, he said, “I never really saw them until I was walking with you.” And they all went away. So there was somebody you’d say, “Great.” But I agree with you. Too many people would ignore it. And how many young ladies would just say, “Oh, this is too hard.” Right? And walk away. I’m not being encouraged. I’m feeling uncomfortable. I’ll go do something else. And that’s society trying to fix it. But anyway, God bless Henry, because he helped me.
Pam Elardo: And I totally understand that. I mean, I don’t want to blame the women who don’t step up, right? Or who don’t want to put up with it, for god’s sake. I mean, really, why should you have to?
Kelly Rogers: Well, how do you go about building that confidence or that resiliency to that type of thing in the workplace?
Liz Girardi-Schoen: Well, today it doesn’t happen. Or at least I can say my experience within Pfizer, that’s just completely not tolerated. Just completely not tolerated. Whatever kind of behavior, whether it’s female or anything else. There’s just acceptance or encouragement to be who you are, and to use your voice, and to appreciate the fact that we all have something important to share. That’s encouraged. Now, that may not be in every workplace, but I’ve been pretty happy to be in a place where that is encouraged.
Pam Elardo: I guess I can talk about cultural differences west coast, east coast a little bit, without insulting anybody. So most of my career in Seattle, after girly posters were a thing of the past and I got to see a lot more women joining the ranks, our field people at the treatment plants, 20% were women, which was a great achievement over the time that I was there. Or were growing women in the professional classes, engineering and project management and stuff like that. And so it felt good, right?
So I moved to New York City. New York City is progressive, but there’s some old utility people. And old utilities have been around for more than 100 years. I literally felt like I was stepping back into the 1980s, culturally. There were very few women. In the field, it’s a stretch to say 1%. In the office, it’s maybe 20% (women). And it just felt that way. And the assumption was… In fact, somebody told me to my face, the only reason I was hired because I was a diversity hire. And I was shocked. Right?
Kelly Rogers: Yeah.
Pam Elardo: And I wish I could replay that moment, because I have so many better ways to respond to it now than I did then. So that’s been kind of bizarre in a way. And so being the leader of a group, and the group is 1,800 in the Bureau of Wastewater Treatment, and just reestablishing leadership, and leadership qualities, and communication expectations, and ending the practice of you get promoted because you’ve been here long enough, and you’re a good technical person, which many times can be a recipe for disaster. Because you’re not necessarily a good manager. So when I arrived, I had to reshuffle and encourage people to do things differently, and/or decide to retire because they were ready for it. But that’s been a transition. And I still think there’s work to do in these pockets of society where they just haven’t been able to transform as much, for whatever reason.
Liz Girardi-Schoen: You’re asking what have I done about it, or what could I do about it, or what could others do about it? I think it’s about encouraging those to use their voice, step up and have the courage to do the right thing. It’s interesting, why is it? I would say within our management ranks, there are way more women than there once were. Coming out of engineering school, I think the numbers are still really low. Why is that?
I have spent some time talking with students in the high school and the college level to encourage them to stick with science and engineering. I think some of it too, it’s like, well, yeah, math and science are hard, right? Anything worth doing is hard.
Tiffany Long: Yeah.
Liz Girardi-Schoen: Don’t you feel accomplished when you get it? There’s something about working as hard as you can at the hardest thing you can do, to see what you can achieve. At least that would be the way I encourage people. In the workplace, yeah, sometimes you have to call people out for behavior that’s not okay. What you were saying about, it’s not just what you do, that’s the technical capabilities, but how you do it.
Pam Elardo: Right.
Liz Girardi-Schoen: Today, I would say we’re in a much better place in terms of rewarding not just what gets done, but how. There’s a piece of how we evaluate people that is looking at not just what they’ve accomplished, but how they go about it, and promoting those who do better with the how.
Sometimes they may not even be the best ones technically, but the how matters. Funny, I’ll often joke with my kids. I say the technical part of my job’s cake, it’s the people part that’s hard. Having those people skills …
Pam Elardo: That’s the truth.
Liz Girardi-Schoen: And the how part, as I was trying to describe how you do it, it matters a lot. That has to be encouraged. For those who have maybe more sensitivity around social skills, that’s nothing to be embarrassed about. It’s actually a powerful strength about bringing people together. Yeah.
Pam Elardo: Well, and that describes leadership. You could be a super great technical person, but if people don’t want to work for you, or if it creates an environment that is toxic and/or just not empowering, who cares?
Liz Girardi-Schoen: Yeah, bringing out the best in people means allowing them to be themselves.
Pam Elardo: Super technical people are needed, but they don’t necessarily need to manage other people. It’s not a qualification for supervision, let’s just say that.
Liz Girardi-Schoen: In order to bring out the best in people, they need to feel comfortable to be themselves.
Pam Elardo: Do either of you feel like you’ve ever been treated differently because of your gender in the industry?
Liz Girardi-Schoen: Yes. Actually, I’ll tell one of my favorite stories, and then what did I do about it?
Pam Elardo: The facial expression said it all.
Liz Girardi-Schoen: I was thinking about a lot of travel. I did a lot of travel, and in the evening time we’d be having a meal, and somebody, inevitably, a man would say, “and who’s minding your children?” As if God forbid, I said, “Their father,” and I looked at him and I said, “And who’s minding yours?”
Pam Elardo: That’s a good one.
Liz Girardi-Schoen: Of course, they’d look at me like I have antenna, but yeah, I can be a little sarcastic.
Pam Elardo: I don’t know where to start on this. It’s a loaded question.
Well, I did mention I worked in the Peace Corps. I actually graduated college with a chemical and environmental engineering degree, and then went to work in Nepal and built water systems. The thing that’s amazing about that is I saw firsthand the importance of what we do in our industry for clean water and sanitation. Number one, we’re a public health service. Right?
Anyway, they were not used to any women in engineering. A lot of people I had to work with were a little bit shocked that I was there. I was in villages. I surveyed, designed water system. I worked for UNICEF projects, and I had a team of construction people. Then we built these remote water supply systems. Amazing.
Kelly Rogers: Yeah?
Pam Elardo: Night and day. Amazing. The guy who ran it, the supervisor, he’s like, “I didn’t believe you’d be able to do it. I just can’t believe it. I didn’t think you could do it.” I’m like, as if that’s a compliment. Setting that aside, but then starting in the field where there were very few women, it just wasn’t comfortable. In fact, starting in engineering school, I started in 1979, there were very few women. The professors, some of the older ones just did not deal with it well, and challenged us.
It was just weird. One guy would put after every exam, he would put the highest score for a woman and the highest score for a man on the thing. Okay, this is the highest woman. This is the highest man. He probably said, girl, girl and man.
Tiffany Long: I think that would motivate me to just be the highest score.
Pam Elardo: Of course, of course. Exactly. Then it was like, okay, well, the women are higher most of the time here.
Liz Girardi-Schoen: I can remember when I’d be the one girl in the class, and he’d call on me every single time. You know what? Then I answered the question. It’s fine. Whatever.
Pam Elardo: Do you experience resistance when you’re managing or leading groups of male employees?
Liz Girardi-Schoen: No.
Pam Elardo: Never.
Liz Girardi-Schoen: Well maybe in the past, but certainly not now. Again, even then, well, how will I say this? It helps when you’re the boss.
Pam Elardo: Sure does. They don’t have a choice.
Liz Girardi-Schoen: However, if you really want to get the best of people, that’s not how you lorded it over them. When I started working in that plant, I told you, 300 guys old enough to be my father or grandfather. I had a lot to learn. The most important thing I did, and I still do, is I listened. I ask questions and listen.
The amazing thing is, when people feel heard, they respond really well. Not only did I think I won them over, I ended up challenging them to be different, started banging the table, different part of the plant. Many of them wanted to come with me, which I think was a good testament.
Tiffany Long: Yeah, yeah, definitely.
Liz Girardi-Schoen: Yeah.
Pam Elardo: I think my experience is, multiple times now, I’ve been hired in a position as a supervisor, and start supervising or managing a group of people, where some people in that group applied for the job.
Tiffany Long: Oh, that’s true.
Pam Elardo: Now I’m their boss.
Tiffany Long: Yep. Yep.
Pam Elardo: Okay. Multiple times, the assumption from the team is, “Well, you just got hired because you’re a woman, or you’re connected to somebody or whatever the case may be.” It’s kind of like, they’ll sit back with their arms crossed and just assume, I’m that.
Tiffany Long: Yeah.
Pam Elardo: Then eventually, “win them over,” might be a good term. The best story I have about that, is along the way, I was the manager of the largest treatment plant in the state of Washington. There was about 200 people in that group. It was pretty much managerial-wise, had been a mess for a long time. My boss is like, “I need somebody like you out there.” I’m like, “I’m not sure I could do this, but sure, if you think so.” I ended up being that, and it was this (arms crossed gesture).
Like you’re saying, I was the youngest. I was the only woman in the plant at the time. I was also lean, and they’re like big, big dudes, like stereotypical. One guy, Bill Lockinger, the most like this (arms crossed gesture). But, I created a higher functioning organization. In my experiences, 20% of the people hated that I was there, because I was going to make them do their jobs in ways that was beneficial to the company, to the agency.
Tiffany Long: Right. Yeah.
Pam Elardo: 20% of the people loved that I was there because they were frustrated. They were frustrated because they were high performers, and the organization was dysfunctional. They couldn’t get work done. The 60% in the middle is the key. They’re either going to join the happy people, or they’re going to slide into, this is terrible. That’s been kind of my formula in all these situations I’ve been in. Bill Lockinger was one of those guys probably in the middle.
Then he literally eventually would get tears in his eyes and say, “You are the best thing that ever happened to this place. You know you’re my favorite. I tell you this, you’re my favorite, you’re the best person.” My whole job was to figure out how to make them more effective. He was one of those people who was a very skilled person, but could not be effective in what he was able to do.
That’s just, when I think of as a testament to making people …
Pam Elardo: More effective…. more effective in getting them to be at their highest potential, and making that your job. Yeah. Really
Liz Girardi-Schoen: When you think about somebody who actually works for me now, and before he reported to me, somebody told him about me. He was afraid, because I guess he heard that I was strong willed. I’m not sure what he was afraid of.
Tiffany Long: Strong willed.
Liz Girardi-Schoen: Whatever, yeah. Well, you can’t have a woman doing that.
Tiffany Long: That’s crazy.
Liz Girardi-Schoen: Clear spoken and strong willed. Anyway, it didn’t take long because he’s fantastic. I’ve helped him advance what he’s trying to do, which is a topic area where people don’t understand it very well. He’s definitely needed help being able to articulate it.
Of course, he tells me I’m the best person he’s ever worked for, which really touches my heart because I knew he actually had to get comfortable enough to tell me he was afraid of me.
Tiffany Long: That’s progress.
Liz Girardi-Schoen: Just the opposite.
Tiffany Long: Just the opposite?
Liz Girardi-Schoen: We get along just great, because he’s fantastic. I’ve helped him to do his work, which is what a leader’s supposed to do.
Pam Elardo: Absolutely. Did you both have mentors as you were coming up that helped you to navigate different challenges?
Liz Girardi-Schoen: I don’t think I ever had what anybody might call a formal mentor. Not that I quite know what a formal mentor is, but it’s not like I was on anybody’s calendar to sit down and do career pathing. I’ve had a number of people I met along the way that were helpful to me, both men and women, that I could go to ask questions when I was navigating something tricky.
Yeah, I think relying on other people, both men and women, to help. A lot of men actually, because that’s who was around, by the way. Who I could ask. Yeah. There definitely were people who helped me.
Pam Elardo: Yeah. For me, I never had a formal mentor/mentee relationship, but I definitely was a sponge. This is what I tell people too. I was a sponge for pieces of how people led or behaved that I thought were great.
Liz Girardi-Schoen: Watch what works.
Pam Elardo: Even better, the stuff that you hated.
Liz Girardi-Schoen: Which doesn’t work
Pam Elardo: The stuff that did not work. I had one boss, it’s like we had to get permits out for environmental compliance, and I’d get all the work together, draft it, and put it on his desk. Literally would stay there for weeks. Literally. He’d be doing some big planning thing. That was his job. It made me crazy. It was not aligned with the mission of organization.
You got to pick what drives you nuts, or what you think is poor performing and what’s high performing, and just kind of model that. I would say, I had just described my role at the treatment plant. I had this one boss, her name’s Christie True. I hope I’m going to send this to her when she hears this, who hired me first, I first worked for her in Washington state, worked 15 years for the state of Washington in environmental regulatory compliance. Then I worked 15 years for King County, which was the wastewater division for metro Seattle area.
She first hired me as the environmental permitting and regulatory, actually property acquisition person, which I had to learn. And she kept giving me more to do. I started with that, and then there was a whole new program she needed to set up for this insurance policy thing, which I had no idea about, but she had me lead that. Then I got a few more jobs, and eventually she put me at the treatment plant, which I thought she was crazy.
But I talked to other people who thought it might work. And it is like every time she needed something done that was challenging, it’s like, “Let’s get Pam to do it.” It’s what it felt like. And I got nervous anytime she would have me in her office by herself, like spontaneously.
Kelly Rogers: Like, uh-oh. Something’s coming.
Pam Elardo: Christy’s following me to my office, oh no.
Liz Girardi-Schoen: I think one of the most common things I would say in terms of helping people be successful, I’m going to go back to the people part stuff. I know some people will say you have to speak to somebody in the language that they understand. And I don’t mean another language, I mean, so they can hear you. And some people say, “Well, no, I don’t have to change. I’m right. I’m right, so I need to do it my way.” What I’ve found, and what I guess I’ve coached others is, you will be much more successful if the other person can hear you. So that means adjusting what you say and how you say it so that you can be effective with the other person. In the end, that’s your power, that’s your strength.
So, no, you don’t have to stand your ground and say, “Well, they have to hear me.” Well, they’re going to hear you better if you figure out how they can listen, or how you can get across to them. So what makes that person tick? What’s going to help them be successful? And then adapt. It’s much more beneficial than saying, “I want to do it my way, and you have to listen to me.”
That’s not what I mean by finding your voice. It’s more about finding out how you can find the win-win thing. What does the other person need and how can you help them? That’s the way to be more successful. How do you align the goals to drive things in the direction that you’re trying to drive them?
Kelly Rogers: Yeah. I’ve heard you guys-
Pam Elardo: That’s good advice.
Kelly Rogers: You both have a lot of really good advice. But any specific thoughts around advice for young women who are starting their careers and thinking about leadership and things that they should be doing to prepare for that?
Liz Girardi-Schoen: I believe, maybe it’s just the way I was raised in a meritocracy, which means those who do well, do well. So by that, what I said before, study the hardest stuff and do really well. Go for the hard assignment, volunteer for it. Take on more work and show that you can do it. Because those who do a good job, and generally my experience, are the ones who get promoted. But again, not just the what you do, but how you go about it. Don’t march around saying, “I’m the best, that’s why you have to give me this.” Or, I’m important. It’s more, do the work and show that you can do the work, bring other people along. That’s who gets promoted.
Pam Elardo: I think there’s this pervasive challenge that we face as women, and especially in the technical industry. And, oh gosh, late last year I think we had a statewide Women of Water conference. And a lot of young women, a lot of young professionals in the group. It was interesting. Again, reminds me of those STEM college people I talked to recently. In that there’s still this lack of confidence that’s pervasive. And because it’s like, I don’t think I can do that. Or I’m not sure I can do that. And I think men are socialized to be, “Yeah, I can do that.” Whether they’re qualified or not it’s like, “I can do that.” And so as one of the speakers at this conference at the end, I said, “I’m hearing this, and I have to tell you, that’s been my experience too. In that I didn’t think I was capable.” And I hate the term “fake it until you make it.”
Because you’re not fricking faking it, you’re actually doing it. You might not think you are, because you’re a little delusional about your skills, but you’re doing it. And then you’ll make it. And so I want to say to them that if you don’t have the confidence, you definitely have the courage. You have the courage to just do it, and do well. Because I know you have the skillset because you’re in this room, as young professionals. You’ll be successful. So it’s courage. If you don’t have confidence, ignore that. And I did not. I literally, until my 40s, did not have confidence. Even though I was performing, it took a long time to convince myself that I was good at what I do.
Kelly Rogers: It’s the things that I attempt that I am shaking in my shoes and nervous about, and I’m up all night preparing for, that make me better at what I do. It’s those things where I push myself outside of my comfort zone.
Liz Girardi-Schoen: I think it too common. You said, “Fake it until you make it.” I think it’s too common. Or at least for me, it’s that little nasty voice in my head. And I’ve spent a long time telling that nasty voice in my head to shut up. There’s a reason why I am where I am, because I’ve done good work. But that little nasty voice in my head is there, I think it’s there for a lot of us. I would say though, at least the field I’m in, in sustainability, almost every one of the big pharma, the sustainability lead is female. Which is really interesting, because you wouldn’t have said that. But again, it’s a new space, and every one of us grew up through the environmental space.
Kelly Rogers: Wonder why that is?
Liz Girardi-Schoen: I know, it was very curious. Look across big pharma, it’s fascinating. So what I’m really enjoying is that some of my closest colleagues in the industry are women, and it’s brilliant women that I’m really happy to know. Yeah.
Pam Elardo: I want to add one more thing to thing I was describing that statewide women’s conference we went to. One of the other common things was, when a woman is complimented she tries to talk to person out of it. Yeah, “You did a great job on the project.” “Well, you know, it wasn’t really me, it was this and this.”
Liz Girardi-Schoen: The whole team.
Pam Elardo: It’s a whole team. And then the thought process in their brain, and this was expressed, and I used to think this. They don’t really know what they’re talking about, I really did not do that good of a job. That is what the voice in the head says. And that came up, and this is what I learned. Get the compliment, shut up about that. But just say thank you. I learned to say thank you when I got a compliment, and that was a big deal. And it sounds ridiculously simple. But just to say thank you means, I don’t have to agree with you that you think I’m awesome. But you think I’m awesome, and you think I did a good job, so thank you for that. And then eventually-
Liz Girardi-Schoen: And not talk them out of it.
Pam Elardo: Right! I’m not going to talk you out of it. And accept it. Just say thank you, then it’ll actually make a difference in how you perceive yourself. And I think that resonated well with the women in the room, and younger women in our profession.
Kelly Rogers: Yeah. I read an article that women always say we’re sorry, too. We’re constantly apologizing for things in email and in conversations. And we have to stop apologizing. That are our opinions matter, what we say matters. Don’t apologize.
Liz Girardi-Schoen: Oh, I have one there. I’m sorry I’m late. Which, I’m always late. I’m backed up with meetings, and I hate being late. But I’ve learned a new one, to say: “thank you for your patience,” when I’m a little late. Which I’m always late, because I’m running from one thing to the next.
Pam Elardo: The other thing, this is another piece of advice. Do not say, “It might just be me, but…” And to like, before you even talk, diminish your opinion. It might only be me who thinks this, but…why? It’s like, what? You’re diminishing what you’re going to say already.
Liz Girardi-Schoen: There’s another one. So you put, “I think” in front of a statement. Just state it. You know what I’m saying? I think that this, that, or the other. Just go on and say it. Because the “I think”, again, it hedges that it’s your opinion versus fact. And facts matter.
Pam Elardo: Might just be me, but…
Kelly Rogers: Well that’s that confidence, right? Of just taking it away right away. That, what I’m saying might not be right.
Pam Elardo: Right, right.
Kelly Rogers: Yeah. Any other words of advice for future generations? This is all really good advice.
Liz Girardi-Schoen: So as I said, part of it is do the hardest thing you can get your hands on. And if you fail…in my own experience is, the things that I didn’t do well are the ones I remember the best, because you learn so much from it. And again, I think some of it is, beat myself up over the things I didn’t do well, but you learn from them. So take on the hardest stuff. And what hopefully would happen is that you have a supervisor that encourages you even when you mess up, because it’s the analysis of what went wrong and why that, again, helps us to learn. And then help other people. That’s the best fun. I’m thinking of a song, it’s Tim McGraw, “help the one behind.” Because it hasn’t been so easy for some. Like, you and I have been on this road for a while, help those who are coming along behind us. And it’s much more fun, actually. Nothing I like better. Yeah.
Pam Elardo: Yeah. And also in my experience, you asked in the beginning, have you ever visualized yourself where you are? It’s like, no way. Right? But there have been barriers. There’s been challenges, obviously. What I tell young people is… Well, let me back up. Sometimes I run into people who are frustrated they’re not moving ahead. And sometimes I really feel like sometimes the reason they’re not moving ahead is because they’re too looking ahead. And their current responsibilities could be better.
I’m always, just do your current job really, really well. And literally, things will happen. Because like you’re saying, do your current job really, really well, you’re going to get more challenges because people are going to notice. And people are going to notice and then there’s new opportunities that open up. So your focus should be to do your current job really well. Always look to take on new opportunities and then things will open up for you. I feel like that’s an organic thing. I’m not saying there’s no sexism and racism that holds people back. But if you’re doing that and you are held back, look elsewhere, because people want you, really.
Liz Girardi-Schoen: The market is really hot for people who have technical skills. I guess the other thought is, you don’t have to always go up. Some of the people sideways, zigzag, whatever it takes. Because you can learn something by taking a sideways job. Even taking a demotion, it might have been a demotion. You’ll learn something new. So learning is the thing, you got to keep learning. And for me, learning and meeting new people, that’s the joy. And I agree, if you’re doing a great job, and ask yourself, “are you’re really doing a great job? Are you doing a great job?” And they’re not promoting you, then leave. There are plenty of places that are going to appreciate your skills tomorrow.
Kelly Rogers: Yeah. When I’ve supervised, those people that are just doing their best every day, those are the ones you’re looking for a way to promote them and to, yeah.
Pam Elardo: And give them more stretch assignments. And then like you’re saying too, even if it’s lateral, you’re growing your skillset.
Kelly Rogers: So let’s talk about your strategies in the workplace to promote gender equality. What have you seen that’s worked well to promote inclusion in the workplace?
Liz Girardi-Schoen: I think inclusion in the workplace, and then there’s even hiring practices. I’m going to touch on hiring practices and then I’ll get back to inclusion in the workplace. It might be that I look a little harder at a resume trying to find the diverse candidate. Doesn’t necessarily mean we’re not going to hire the best person. But again, I’ve had an example where we were looking to hire a fantastic candidate, and the person was concerned that the workplace would be too challenging. Young family, need to balance. And I actually, in the midst of the interview process, I called her to talk to her about what that’s like and the flexibility, and the things that we do to encourage people to live their lives and still be their best at work. So if that means you need a couple hours in the afternoon, that’s fine, you can finish it up later.
It’s all about the work you deliver. I took an extra step to call her. I didn’t have to do that, I could have just done the interview and let it go. But I wanted to allay those concerns. I think there’s another step you can take to try to help someone where it may be challenging to bring that diverse candidate in. And by the way, the person’s amazing. She is, and I knew she would be. But back to the workplace, I think listening and asking. Isn’t that a simple thing to say? If someone’s not speaking, then ask a question so that you can hope they then will participate. Some people, you know it’s our nature. Yes. I’m not quiet by nature, but some people are. And if you pay attention to who’s quiet and ask them a question that helps them to kind of jump into the conversation. It’s about why are they quiet? Who knows why they’re quiet. You can work on helping them be more confident, ask and listen, and do something with what they say. Yeah.
Pam Elardo: So being in the public sector where the hiring practices are very inflexible, particularly in New York City—in my previous role, not as bad. And I was able to create new lines for entry level. So I was talking about the treatment plant experience and we have treatment plant operators, mechanics, electricians, instrumentation and control, engine mechanics, and trades, and all the support services that go with that. And we didn’t have an operator-in-training program. So you had to come in as an operator and it was a little bit challenging because you had to have had six months at least of experience at a different plant and pass a statewide exam.
And so we created this operator-in-training program and all you needed to do was have a high school degree or a GED even. There’s a sort of physical using ladders kind of thing. And you could enter as a utility worker, get the experience at the plant, take the operator exam and become an operator, great career path. And so we are able to get a much broader group of folks, much more wide in terms of diversity, more women. And so that’s been able to populate that. And then in the white collar world, it eventually was happening as more women were available in the pool of technical skills.
So then I moved to New York city where the civil service system is like a rock. And they give you a little hammer to try and make it move. And the thing that’s amazing is the white collar world is super diverse in my office, because it’s New York City and there’s people from all over the world. And some of the leadership organizationally, the leadership had been there a long time. So they tended to be more white, but that’s changing rapidly. It’s changing in my leadership team, but the floor is like the United Nations. It’s great. I love it. In the treatment plants, mostly because the recruiting has been, my dad worked there, my uncle worked there. And so they tend to be like Italian, Irish dudes, their kids, and some other. The racial diversity’s changing as well, but it’s kind of historically been a hand me down sort of position and people get in because they know somebody. And the job spec to get in is really narrow. So it’s really challenging to get women in that track.
And changing a job description or changing anything in the city when it comes to hiring, takes 10 years. And so our job descriptions are literally like from the 1970s. So it’s really hard to do it. So we’ve got to try and crack that nut in multiple ways. I hired a great organizational development and human resources person, Kenya Lewis, who is brilliant. And we started programs, then COVID hit. And so a little more outreach, establishing a track in community colleges to get people the skill set so they can pass the state exam and then join the ranks. There’s a lot we can do, but it’s so rigid and challenging. Like calling somebody after an interview, I would get slapped for that. You can’t, that’s outside the process. That’s tough, and figuring out how to crack it in New York City has been a little more challenging, in my experience.
Tiffany Long: It sounds like you’re starting down the pipeline though, like in community colleges to try and….
Pam Elardo: Yeah. That’s really the only way to do it and we’ll see. I mean hopefully over time it’ll change.
Tiffany Long: Yeah. Well, do you think there’s a way to calculate positive impacts of having women as leaders in any organization?
Liz Girardi-Schoen: Calculate? Calculates hard, but for sure, what I can see is that some of the key values around leadership these days are building the team, engagement of the workforce, collaboration. Most women I know are pretty good at that. And so the things that we value in terms of encouraging and enabling, maybe I’m making broad sweeping generalizations, do come easier to women. But what I have seen is that those behaviors are then being acknowledged, right? And for some men, they come easily, some don’t, but we value skills of collaboration and inclusion and empowering and maybe I’m wrong. I’m hesitating my own thoughts here again with that. But I think it comes more naturally to women than sometimes to men.
Kelly Rogers: I would agree with that.
Liz Girardi-Schoen: Yeah. I mean, I don’t know. I know that there have been studies.
Pam Elardo: Oh good, data.
Liz Girardi-Schoen: I read headlines so I know everything. One headline is that a more diverse workforce is higher performing. They make better decisions and I’ve anecdotally seen that. So people from diverse backgrounds, culture, any range of identity, language, when you have a mix of different experiences, different backgrounds, different ways people view the world, different genders, your outcome is always better. And I do think, because I read a headline, that has been studied. I do think even Forbes magazine did something on that. And so obviously that is something to strive for and we’ve seen it in practice. So that’s where you can’t deny the value of it.
Pam Elardo: Yeah. Again, not sure I can cite the great data, but one of the things we do study is thinking styles in the group. So even if you have people all of the same gender or any other thing, we don’t think the same way. And so what we’ve worked on doing is looking at our different thinking styles. So, not so surprising in a science based company, lots of them are analytical thinkers and very technical, but we don’t make great decisions when everybody’s in the blue green space, as we call it. There’s this color wheel if you’ve ever seen it. We need people who are more engaging and innovative and things like that. So it’s absolutely true that you need a diversity of people. That diversity could come from race, gender, or other things, but it’s also thinking type. So acknowledging that we think differently and appreciating that, we see way better results. I mean, I’ve seen a situation where everybody’s kind of in the blue green space and they’re plain stuck. Can’t fix something, can’t figure it out. That’s because you need some new thoughts and some new thinkers.
Kelly Rogers: Yeah. If you’ve got a ring of analytical people trying to solve a problem, they’re all in their heads and they’re focused on the weeds and the details. You need those expressive personalities to kind of pull that information out.
Liz Girardi-Schoen: And I think that color wheel thing is great because when you really look at it, you understand what you may need to compliment me. So that behavior and skillset that used to annoy me because they’re so different than I am, are now complimentary. And I need them. I used to have a manager that was a coworker. And then I became his boss who was super thoughtful and slow and analytical in making decisions. And it used to make me crazy. I was like, all right, there’s enough information, we go on. But then I figured out I really needed him. I needed him to get me to my level where I can make a decision and I can move us in a certain direction. Because without him, I might be rash. I might miss something that’s kind of a high risk thing. So he’s looking at risk all the time and I’m relying on him to fill in some gaps that I don’t even know exist. So that’s why that circle and diversity of thinking and perspective is super important. And it comes with the rainbow of people and our level of diversity to maximize that. Absolutely.
Kelly Rogers: Any last closing thoughts around this topic? Anything that we didn’t ask a question about that would be worthwhile?
Liz Girardi-Schoen: No. I think I might end where I started. Nothing to hold you back, but yourself. So whatever you set out to do, go do it. And go find people to help you. Don’t be afraid to ask. My own experience, it’s the rare example where you ask somebody for help and they won’t help. Many people might not think to reach out, but ask for it. And if they turn you down, too bad for them, go find somebody else to help.
Kelly Rogers: Yeah. That’s something I’ve had to work on. I have a hard time asking for help.
Liz Girardi-Schoen: Or accepting help. So I’m trying to encourage us to do that.
Kelly Rogers: So that’s really good advice.
Pam Elardo: Okay. I’m going to disagree with you. I’m going to give a different perspective. You said nothing to hold you back except yourself. I think there’s a lot of crap that can hold you back. Your parents, your environment, your culture, some problem person at work that the culture of the company won’t deal with. So, then the other half of what you said, find ways to navigate that. Find ways for people to help you. Even file an EEO complaint if you have to for God’s sake, because that’s what it’s for. There’s reasons for that.
So I think there are a lot of barriers, but tenacity, persistence, courage, even if you don’t have confidence, that’s really what it takes. And there’s people like us here and everybody in this room who would really like to help you navigate that. And to really help promote you, so that you can be your best. And there’s LinkedIn, there’s 6,000 ways you could connect with people now. There’s women engineering organizations, there’s leadership organizations. So, we’ve got the platform for everybody to grow from right now.
Liz Girardi-Schoen: Might be a different perspective, but I completely agree with you.
Pam Elardo: We’re not disagreeing.
Liz Girardi-Schoen: We’re not disagreeing. Don’t let it hold you back. Find the way forward.
Pam Elardo: And don’t blame yourself. Find a way forward.
Liz Girardi-Schoen: Don’t blame yourself. Find a path that works.
Tiffany Long: I think that’s great. Yeah.
Kelly Rogers: Well, we want to thank you both for joining us today. This has been a great conversation and we hope that folks listening to this have found this to be as inspiring as we have for sure.
Tiffany Long: Yes. Thank you so much for spending your time with us today. We really appreciate it.
Liz Girardi-Schoen: It was good fun. Thanks.
Kelly Rogers: Yeah, definitely. We know many of our listeners out there have their own engineering legend stories. We would love to hear from you. Please send us your feedback, stories and ideas for future episodes.
You can reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. This podcast was brought to you by Brown and Caldwell. It’s our purpose and passion to safeguard water, maintain infrastructure and restore habitats to keep our communities thriving. So until next time.