Women thrive and lead at ESD
Female leadership and gender equality are subjects of intense debate in Silicon Valley, where some women feel stymied by a male-dominated corporate culture.
The City of San José Environmental Services Department, situated in the heart of the valley, draws inspiration from the region’s creativity and innovation. But the department strives for a more equitable workplace culture, one that encourages women to lead and gives them ample opportunities for professional growth.
Engineers at the Environmental Services Department are highly diverse.
The mindset starts at the top. ESD is led by a pair of accomplished women: Director Kerrie Romanow and Assistant Director Ashwini Kantak.
Together they have fostered an organizational ecosystem that prizes diversity of all kinds, encourages a healthy work-life balance, and offers employees flexibility in their schedules and how they meet their work objectives.
“We want everyone to feel welcome,” says Romanow. “From where we recruit to how we recruit, the goal is to get a diverse set of folks, so that everyone who comes in feels like they fit.”
The leaders of ESD also emphasize the importance of leading fulfilling lives outside work.
“We have very high expectations for performance, but we’re also willing to be flexible,” Kantak says. “Everyone needs a good balance in their lives to be happy and to be productive at work as well. It’s a pretty important part of our culture.”
That approach has proved to be welcoming to women, particularly engineers. Of the department’s 42 engineers, 13 are female. The percentage of female engineers at ESD (31 percent) is more than double that of female engineers throughout the United States, or 14 percent, according to a 2017 report by the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Women thrive in other areas as well. Of the department’s approximately 500 employees, 32 percent are female. Twenty-nine percent of city employees nationwide are women, according to the most recent summary by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Thirty-six percent of ESD’s managers are women, with the figure increasing to 49 percent among nontrade managers.
Julia Nguyen is deputy director of the department’s Capital Improvement Program, which is executing a $1.4 billion, 10-year upgrade of the San José-Santa Clara Regional Wastewater Facility, the largest advanced wastewater treatment facility in the West. The ambitious rebuilding effort is the biggest public works project in the South Bay.
Nguyen has found that ESD provides a nurturing environment.
“There were times when I didn’t see the heights that I could move up within the organization,” she says, “but through mentoring and encouragement and leadership, it pushed me to take the next step in my career.”
Before joining ESD nearly five years ago, senior CIP engineer Tina Pham worked in the private sector, where she saw little evidence of work-life balance. Coming to ESD, she says, “was a breath of fresh air.” She started at the San José Municipal Water System before moving to the CIP.
Megha Prakash, an associate engineer with the CIP, was pregnant at the time she was hired three years ago. She ended up having her daughter six weeks early. Her supervisor made a stressful experience easier by giving her greater flexibility in her schedule and allowing her to spend more time working remotely.
“It was sort of a challenging time for me, but I was put at ease,” says Prakash, adding, “I feel really comfortable at ESD. Everyone is setting you up for success. All you need to do is work hard and keep going. I feel like I’m in for the long haul based upon my experience so far.”
Pham and Prakash describe a work environment that is collaborative and focused on consensus-building.
Men enjoy the atmosphere at ESD as well. Kapil Verma, principal engineer for the CIP, sees ESD as a model for the evolving U.S. workforce.
“I have an 8-year-old daughter,” he says, “and I’d like her to enter a professional world later in life where she feels comfortable coming into work every day, feels her voice is heard, and that she can make an impact.”
For Romanow, the culture at ESD is an expression of the organization’s vision statement: A place where people do great work and make a difference.
“The way we think we can create that environment is to support people and enable them to do their best,” she says. “My perspective is: I want to do it all and I want to give everyone a chance to do it all. So that means to do really great work, to raise a really great family, to spend really great quality time with your extended family, and to have really great hobbies and interests outside of work.”