According to the US Department of Labor Women’s Bureau, women comprised 46 percent of the total US labor force in 2005, accounting for 50 percent of all workers in the high-paying management and professional fields.1
The Center for Women’s Business Research2 indicates that nearly half (48 percent) of all privately-held US firms are 50 percent (or more) women-owned. One in 11 adult women is an entrepreneur. These firms generate nearly $2.4 trillion in sales.
Unfortunately, none of the water associations maintain any gender statistics on women in the industry. That doesn’t mean they are missing from the picture.
Voices to be heard
WC&P recently spoke to five highly successful women about their roles in this predominantly male industry. A very positive picture emerged that clearly indicates gender hasn’t been a barrier to achieving their goals. Entry wasn’t without challenges (according to some) but accomplishments prove that opportunities are available.
Jill Holstein, Vice President of B&D Quality Water, Inc.; Ramona Mason, CWS-V, Sales Representative and Manager of Good Water Warehouse; Denise Urbans, Founder and President of Res-Kem Corp; Lynda Thomson, CWS-IV, Sales Manager at US Resin; and Debbie Bolton, President and Owner of Purely Okanagan Bottled Water Company have helped redefine the traditional roles of women. They graciously granted WC&P their personal insights into the changing status of women in the water treatment industry.
Choice or chance?
Asked if they became a part of the water industry by chance or design, only two indicated that a specific sense of purpose led them here. For Bolton, it was an opportunity to change career fields. “I bought the business in 1991 when it was a year old. My background is nursing and this business was a comfortable fit.”
Holstein grew up in a water family. “Since my parents started this dealership, it was natural for me to move into place here.” Growing up in the business gave her a long look at the whole picture. “My mother was a very powerful force in our company, as well as the manufacturer, so I always had a great example of how to handle things, thanks to her.”
“I was born with an entrepreneurial spirit and wanted to start a business,” said Urbans. “When I looked at my personal contacts, it just so happened I knew people from the water industry who would help me get started. It was an opportunity of chance, not design.”
Earning their stripes
Jumping in with both feet, taking on responsibilities, enrolling in classes and gaining certifications were paths to acceptance and respect. “I certainly felt the cold shoulder of the ‘old boys club’ in my early years, which only kick-started me to be the best that I could be,” said Mason. “I paid my dues by studying hard under some wonderful mentors and becoming a Certified Water Specialist Level V; I now enjoy the camaraderie.”
Thomson recognized the need to maintain her momentum by staying current. “I read anything I can get my hands on and strive to know the correct treatments for any given problem. I got my certification (CWS-IV) but it doesn’t stop there. I take classes whenever possible and I ask a lot of questions.”
“I believe you have to choose what role you are comfortable with and then stand firmly by what you believe, regardless of your gender,” commented Holstein. “My position and impact are what I make it. I’d like to believe that I’ve brought a sense of caring to our business so that our employees know that we also have a heart. People will always respond if you care about them,” she continued.
Leveling the playing field
The majority of respondents indicated the biggest initial hurdle was being erroneously viewed as clerical help. “If you own a water treatment business, most people assume you’re the wife and you do the books,” said Urbans. “As it turns out, I have never done the books!” Mason said she often felt the attitude was, “You cannot possibly be technical enough to understand my problem and give me advice!” Thomson echoed similar sentiments.
However, gender was not viewed as a handicap by most of the group. “I have felt both the positive and negative effects. Today, I truly believe it is an advantage,” said Mason. “With so few technical women in this field, it is hard not to be memorable. Standing out from the crowd is a key to success in sales.” Bolton added, “I think being a woman is an advantage when talking to new customers. I am not a threatening or obvious salesperson.”
“Back in the 80s and early 90s, my customers (mostly male) were happy to hear a female voice on the other end of the telephone,” Urbans remembered. “Many would be happy to give me details about their operations and keep me in mind when something came up for bid. Women were great too, because there were so few of us out there we immediately bonded.”
“In our business, it’s always a level playing field,” commented Holstein. “Our adage is that people who have good work ethic and produce the most consistent results get rewarded. The work ethic is the underlying commonality, not gender.”
Mason readily agrees. “We are only limited by our own imagination and self-confidence. There are a plethora of owners and managers with the foresight to welcome women into any position. I wish to take this opportunity to thank them for being visionaries; they facilitated this much-needed change.”
“I’ve never been one to moan about whether or not it’s a level playing field,” opined Urbans. “My business life has revolved around getting new customers and treating them well. If I thought a male customer would be bothered that I owned the company, I didn’t tell him.”
Changes have been slow to take hold, but there is an optimistic view about the future. Our responders enthusiastically believe there is always room for more women in their ranks and wholeheartedly endorse the water quality industry as a healthy opportunity for their daughters.
As if to bolster this position, proof of a new and growing generation of ‘water women’ presented itself at a student conference held last May. The top three students in each division were awarded prizes; this proved to be the year of the women as all six awards went to female presenters. Go Girls!
- www.dol.gov/wb/factsheets/Qf-labor force-05.htm. Women in the Labor Force in 2005
- www.womensbusinessresearch.org/topfacts.html. Center for Women’s Business Research
Know a woman busily working to improve our industry? Call us at (520) 323-6144 or email [email protected].