Updated: Sep 19, 2019
Author: Kelsey Schmitt
In June, I attended the American Water Works Association’s Conference & Exposition in Denver, Colorado. For my first conference and first real taste of what this industry has to offer, I can say I left Denver with so much pride and confidence in the women who are redefining this typically male-dominated space. From all the women I spoke with at the conference, one piece of advice was emphasized throughout their stories. In some form or another, they all articulated the same message: they wanted women in the water industry to hear: “Do not be afraid, you can do this”.
From women pipe tappers and operators, to chemists and engineers, they all spoke about misconceptions around this line of work and how women may struggle to see how they ‘fit in’. A career in the water industry, or any industry for that matter, desperately needs women’s voices to be heard and their skills to be utilized in order for it to operate at maximum potential.
One woman, in particular, comes to mind when I think of the great strides women have made in the world of water. A woman that has faced the pressure that comes with working in a male-dominated field. A woman that has thrived because of it. That woman is Rhonda Harris.
As I sat in the stands at my first ever pipe tapping competition with my camera in hand, snapping picture after picture of these women fiercely taking apart and putting together pieces of equipment I had never seen before, my eye caught Rhonda. She was across the competition floor at the men’s “Hydrant Hysteria” competition, but not as a competitor. As a judge. The only woman judge, in fact.
In my interview with Rhonda, she walked me through her role as a judge, her time spent in the AWWA world, as a past President of the Water Environment Federation (WEF),
and the lessons she has learned from being a woman in this male-dominated community. Having 2 pipe tapping championships under her belt and over 40 years of industry experience as a grade 4 water and wastewater operator and engineer, it’s no surprise that she was the only woman judging the men’s “Hydrant Hysteria” competition, and it’s definitely no surprise why we look to her for guidance navigating and succeeding in this challenging, but worthwhile industry.
In her 40 years in the field, Rhonda has served an integral role in the progression of women’s accomplishments in the water industry. In her first year helping the AWWA men’s pipe tapping team compete, they were competed and places quite well in the UK Drilling and Tapping competition region. From there, Rhonda was asked to participate in a women’s pipe tapping team at the UK competition, along with Katie MCCain (a past AWWA President), so she did just that. She went on to win the British Women’s Division as a team member for both Thames Water (2000) and Three Valleys Water (2001).
Rhonda was also instrumental in creating and starting the World Water Cup of Drilling and Tapping, an international competition hosted by AWWA, the KVWN (Netherlands) and the IWO (United Kingdom).
Rhonda proceeded to break down her role as judge and what exactly is happening in these competitions.
“We’re judging assembly of a fire hydrant by two-person team. As judges, we check to make sure they're following procedural protocols, making sure that they don't have any procedural violations, safety violations, and that they assemble the hydrant correctly. We have both men's teams and women's teams here competing and we're pretty excited about that! This is actually our first year to have women’s teams compete!”
It was amazing to see both men and women’s teams competing for a chance to be the ‘best of the best’ at tapping a pipe and assembling a fire hydrant. Even more amazing was the support these teams received from the crowd of fans cheering in the stands. But I had to wonder, why this hasn’t always been a thing? Why is this only the first year AWWA has had women’s teams compete in this pipe tapping competition in Denver?
“Well, we’ve actually always had women’s teams in pipe tapping.. We had the Oklahoma Women's Pipe Tapping Team (the Tapi-OKIES) for many years, but they were here demonstrating, not competing. We didn't have another team to compete against them. Those ladies came in and participated and demonstrated for several years and then went on to become judges and helped actually run the competitions. And then in 2000 we finally had enough women who wanted to do this [compete] and enough organizations to support women doing this.”
It was in 2000 when Denver had its first AWWA women’s competition block added to the schedule; starting with six teams competing the first year and growing to 11 women’s teams competing today.
I asked Rhonda why she thought it took the competition longer to support women’s teams. She explained much of the reason was ignorance - ignorance to women wanting to compete in something like this… a misconception that women ‘could not even do this type of work to begin with’.
“Women participate! Women work in the field. Women work in the office. We can do this kind of thing! It's working smarter, it's not just brute strength. It's working to your particular strengths to be able to do this, and it's about making a recognition that women are able to do this kind of thing and can work right alongside the guys. But, at the end of the day, you have to prove yourself as a competitor whether you're a man or a woman.”
The transition to having women’s teams compete at AWWA competitions was embraced by the community overall. Though, Rhonda explained that there had been some initial pushback to the addition of women’s teams in it’s beginning phase. A pushback that was met with resilience and confidence in the work women can do, with Rhonda as its poised leader.
“It was only in the first couple of years of having competitions with the guys going like, ‘Well wait a minute…. What's she doing here, she's a girl?’ And that was snuffed pretty quickly, because I'm an operator myself. I'm a grade 4 water and wastewater operator as well as an engineer. I've worked in the field. I've done operations. I've been down in manholes. I've done all this work. So, once I start talking to the men here, they understand that I know what I'm doing…. They don’t question my ability anymore.”
It can be extremely difficult for women to make it in an industry where their presence hasn’t been long established. Especially for those women new to the field. Coming into a space where you are obviously the minority can be intimidating. But with the support of women who are already in that space, women who have already made their own strides, it can be a place for women to flourish. It is so crucial for women to support the women around them. To help lift them to heights they were forced to reach alone. We are a community, and we are powerful when we stand together as one. Rhonda explained to me that this is something women must realize, especially those women in the water industry.
Rhonda advocates for all people to be part of this community of change makers, and to join an industry that is essential to the well-being of everyone. Though the water industry may not come across as the most attractive and simple career path, it is one that is most definitely rewarding. “What we do is save lives, every day. We save lives. We make the water safe to drink, we clean up the wastewater before it goes back into the environment. So, whether you're a male or a female, if you want to do something that's meaningful with your life, this is a good opportunity.”
You have to be brave to disrupt the standard, to change the status quo. You have to be brave to open doors and create opportunities for yourself that sometimes only you can see. But most importantly, you have to believe you can. You have to believe you deserve the chance to do so.