I’ve pursued paths that, while they weren’t unheard of for women, women were definitely in the minority. I pursued my undergraduate degree in civil engineering at a time when women made up about 10% of the students in my degree program. That was the highest percentage among all the engineering fields of study at the time.
I’ve worked at environmental regulatory agencies for most of my career, beginning with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1998. From day one I had a serious case of “imposter syndrome” as I sat in Washington, DC, surrounded by J.D.’s and Ph.D’s. My credentials at that point consisted of a B.S. from a university situated among wheat fields in Washington. I was asked for my perspective and input on policy discussions, given roles in high level briefings and opportunities to represent the work of the agency.
When I moved to Oregon to begin my new job at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality as a manager, the director stopped by to welcome me on my first day. I was also welcomed by staff and my fellow managers, and in particular, my other women manager peers, in such a way as to mitigate my shock at realizing when I sat down for the first time with all 14 water quality managers, only four were women and most of the managers had been in the management ranks for well over 10 years.
Those early positive and supportive interactions with women managers gave me confidence and validation.
The latest move to fill in as DEQ’s Deputy Director has been another amazing opportunity to see and understand DEQ’s work from a different viewpoint and to interact with some of DEQ’s programs and staff that I would not have otherwise interacted.
After more than 20 years in the field, I reflect on some of those early interactions. One of the most important things that got me through the early days was the genuine welcome to a new job. I was the recipient of actions and words that validated my contributions and value to the organization; having people in my work circles willing to coach, support and provide feedback to give me the confidence to face and interact with demanding and critical audiences—both inside the agencies’ hierarchies and people outside of the agencies.
These interactions reinforce the idea that wherever we land in our careers and whatever markers define “success,” that we do not arrive there based solely on our own efforts. I also think that we owe these types of experiences to our colleagues, particularly employees new to DEQ or in new positions in order for not only our employees to be successful, but also for DEQ as an organization to be successful and fully utilize our organization’s talent and potential.
–Jennifer Wigal, DEQ interim deputy director