It’s not all hard hats and plows in the world of public works. And it’s not all men leading the teams of engineers, technicians and analysts who help maintain the infrastructure and building projects so common in that world.
Still, it’s fairly rare to find women in public works — let alone women like Julie Anderson, Shelly Billingsley and Cathy Austin, who all hold management positions in their departments in Racine and Kenosha counties.
From road and parks and development proposals to access permits, zoning and, in Anderson’s case, a marina, they do it all — coordinating sometimes dozens of employees to make sure that garbage is collected, roads are paved and plowed, projects are planned, the paperwork gets done and the fleet is maintained.
Here’s a glimpse into how each of these women got into their work and why they stick with it, despite being in the minority.
Julie Anderson didn’t have high expectations when she applied for an entry-level permit technician job with the Racine County planning and development department.
“I remember dropping my resume in the mailbox at the UWM student union. I remember it like it was yesterday, thinking, ‘I’ll never hear anything,’” said Anderson, who was in graduate school studying geography at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee at the time.
To her surprise, she got the job. And, 22 years later, she leads the department as director of a possibly one-of-a-kind combination of Public Works and Development Services in Racine County.
“I am not sure there is anyone else in the state who has the same kind of title,” said Anderson, who manages to add two more hyphenates to her title by working as land information officer for Racine County and overseeing a contract for planning and zoning services for the village of Caledonia.
“What we have going here in Racine County we know is being watched in other counties. And they’re using us as their litmus test to see if we can pull it off,” she said. “So far, so good.”
Anderson is being watched partly because it’s so unusual to mix land use and public works.
Typically, the sheer volume of permits in one department, and the constant projects in the other keep the two separate. But the county chose to combine the departments partly because of the economic collapse of 2008, which killed many development plans and sent permit requests plummeting. If the economy returns to pre-2008 levels, when business and development were booming, the current arrangement might change.
For now, Anderson leads both, reporting directly to the county executive and overseeing dozens of employees, including superintendents for planning and zoning, highways, parks, engineering and building and facilities, who all report directly to her.
It’s a unique position for a woman, which might account for the other reason so many eyes are on her, Anderson admitted. But, with the faith and support of her bosses and peers, she said gender has never really been an issue in her work.
“I feel like I’ve been very lucky in my career,” said Anderson, 44, a married mother of two daughters, ages 16 and 19. “There are very few women who do this job, but I don’t think of it that way. I think of myself as part of a team, another brain at the table.
“It’s strange at times being the only woman at the meetings, at the board table. But that’s reality. And I don’t think of myself as any different than anyone else in the room. I’m just part of the discussion.”
It hasn’t always been easy, but Shelly Billingsley doesn’t dwell on the challenges she’s faced as one of the few women in public works.
“There are times when I go out to meet a citizen, less now, but people would say, ‘You’re the engineer?’ Or I answer the phone and people say, ‘I want to speak to an engineer.’ And I say, ‘Well, you’re speaking to an engineer.’
“It’s those little things, but it’s nice to know that I’ve had less and less of that. I don’t remember the last time I answered the phone and heard that,” said Billingsley, director of engineering and deputy director of public works with the city of Kenosha Department of Public Works and Stormwater Utility.
Billingsley has been an engineer for more than 10 years, although you might say her work began as a child.
“We had big rolls of paper, and I would draw roads and ponds and buildings and campgrounds so my younger brother could drive his Matchbox cars around town,” Billingsley said.
It was her father, a mechanical engineer, who encouraged Billingsley to detour from more typical childhood dreams — veterinarian, doctor, dentist — and embrace her love of math and science. Then, she visited her uncle, a civil engineer, at work.
“I fell in love with it,” she said.
Today, Billingsley manages about 300 employees in the city’s six divisions — streets, waste, fleet, engineering, administration and stormwater utility — making her second only to the city engineer in Kenosha.
It’s a level of success Billingsley never doubted she could reach if she worked hard enough, particularly in city government, which she said lends itself to staff diversity and development.
“It’s a male-dominated profession — kind of knew that going in that was going to be a challenge,” acknowledged Billingsley, who was one of the first women engineers in Kenosha and the only woman in her division when she was hired.
“But I don’t think I ever had a moment where I felt like it was because I’m a woman, like it’s a hurdle I had to jump over. I never consciously thought of it that way. I never made it an issue.”
And, the 36-year-old married mother of two — ages 5 and 7 — said she doesn’t expect it ever will be. In fact, once she earns her MBA, Billingsley hopes she can one day become a director of public works.
“I’ve never thought that there was a hurdle that, as a woman, I couldn’t get past. I’m an engineer. I problem solve. I think my way out of a problem, and I get past it.”
Cathy Austin never really questioned what she would do when she grew up.
“I knew I wanted to be an engineer before high school,” said Austin, an assistant city engineer with the city of Kenosha Department of Public Works.
It was practically family tradition: Her grandfather was an engineer. Her father was an engineer. Her brother and sister are engineers.
“We’re a big strong math family. It must be in the blood,” Austin joked.
Seven years into her career, Austin said she’s never second-guessed her decision, despite still being one of the few women in her profession — and one of only a handful in management.
Considered second in command in the city’s engineering division, Austin supervises about half of her team’s 15 engineers, specialists and analysts, who deal with everything from retention ponds to park plans.
Fortunately, Austin said, mentors like her boss Shelly Billingsley have helped blaze a trail. So, instead of issues with gender, the 29-year-old newlywed has faced the typical dilemmas of young professionals.
“It’s just a challenge to gain respect,” she said. “I’ve had contractors tell me, ‘You don’t understand,’ that I just see paper on my desk, that I don’t know. But I do. I know what field work is and what needs to be done. Is it because I’m young? A woman? Or is it because it’s who they are? I don’t know. It’s a balancing game. I don’t go to, ‘It’s because I’m a woman.’ I just work hard to prove them wrong.”
And she revels when things go right, like last year when her team completed a project at the undeveloped Sunrise Park site in Kenosha.
After two years of planning and input from neighbors, city engineers created a space with walking paths, softball fields and, of course, a new playground.
“The community reaction was very rewarding,” Austin said. “We developed a park they wanted.”
It’s a part of the job Austin has grown to love.
“Every day is a different challenge,” Austin said. “We get such a wide range of projects, so you’re always expanding your horizons and coming up with new ideas. And we enhance our community.”