Women in any industry fight against obstacles facing entry and advancement. Whether intentional or unconscious, these hurdles place an unjust burden on many women. This can manifest as a lack of trust and understanding, resulting in women not being taken seriously. In the largely male-dominated field of water/wastewater, it is important to provide a platform for women to share their stories as they make strides toward equality and opportunity. In recent years, women in this industry have taken great steps forward, despite making up less than 30% of the water utility industry.
Alison McGee, PO, is an exemplary role model as an inspiring woman who walked into a “man’s world” and paved her own path to success. Over the past 15 years, she has overcome any doubts from others and the pressures that they’ve caused her to put on herself. She is the first woman to become a water supply manager for Huntsville Utilities, is one of the first classes to be designated Professional Operators, and acts as the current Chair for Water Professionals International.
Fritz Mucke, Director for the Water Department at Huntsville Utilities, shared his views on her growth. When she originally started with Huntsville Utilities, he said that part of what made her stand out was her PO designation. After doing research on what a “Professional Operator” was, he knew she was a serious and reliable operator. She quickly made herself known, so when Alison came back from maternity leave to find out her previous water supply manager had retired, she accepted being thrown into the responsibilities. “She walked right into that. No hesitation,” Fritz says. Alison didn’t shy away from the new duties; her ability to jump right in and adapt to the change made her the perfect candidate for the official promotion.
Over a short period, the organization had multiple long-term, knowledgeable employees retire. They lost 200 years of experience in less than a year. So, when Alison took over as the first woman to rise to the role of water supply manager, some people weren’t ready to stray from the comfort of the past. An issue facing the water sector has been a closed mindset, but when women push through that, it creates a step forward for all. Fritz holds a lot of pride in Alison and is always in her corner. “Alison hung in there, toe to toe. She always wanted what was best for the system and made sure she’d get it,” he says. After a rough beginning, Alison made it clear she was there to stay, and those who didn’t think she could do it are now happy to be a part of her team.
Watching women rise to the challenge inspires others to do the same. Wilma Jackson is one of the plant supervisors under Alison. She credits part of her motivation for advancement in this position to Alison. “It gave me confidence that I could go further than I was,” Wilma says. “As an operator, I felt like I was a good operator. I enjoyed what I was doing, but I wanted to do more.” She continued to explain that watching Alison grow professionally was a great experience, and she admires the way Alison sees the full scale of operations. It was also helpful having someone of the same gender backing her. With Alison there, Wilma has someone with a similar perspective.
Although her colleagues highlight what a success she has become, Alison takes a modest approach when discussing her success. She says that a significant amount of guidance and support came from her Laboratory Supervisor, Randy Blurton. From the beginning, he saw potential in Alison and nurtured her passion for the line of work. She shared, “He was a great sounding board as I evaluated the path I wanted to take, and he encouraged me to aspire to advance.” In part, his support led her to become the shift supervisor and, eventually, she became the assistant manager. Then, with Plant Manager, Alan Cranford’s guidance, she developed a managerial mindset. This led to her current position, where she met her director, Fritz Mucke. His leadership and rallying pushed Alison to continue growing. Alison appreciates his willingness to share. “I value his knowledge and expertise, and he has been a fantastic mentor [for] passing this on to me.” Needless to say, she has made impactful mentors proud. She took their advice, lessons, and stories and molded her own mindset for her career.
It is an unfortunate reality that women need to work harder to prove themselves worthy of the same treatment and respect as men in the workplace. Though unconscious biases and discrediting mindsets are still around, women like Alison overshadow every cynic in their track. Every time a story of success is released, another woman is inspired to push the discouragement aside and prove herself. Alison hasn’t let negativity or passive attitudes stop her from shaping a career the way she wanted. With a smile on her face, she will continue to create a welcoming space for anyone who wants to join this line of work.