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Women in Construction Week 2020 Profile: Kathy Cryan

Saturday, March 7, 2020 - 3:29pm

City of Madison Engineering shared one profile a day as it celebrates National Women in Construction Week, March 1-7, 2020.

When you knock on a door looking for opportunity, there’s a chance no one opens it. An even worse thing happens when someone opens it, then slams it in your face for no reason or the wrong reason. But what if the door opened and stayed open, and the person who opened it, welcomed you inside to all the opportunities that await you. If that door is the City of Madison’s Engineering Division, meet Kathy Cryan, Engineering’s Deputy Division Manager, responsible for a welcoming culture of opportunities for all in Engineering, and throughout her journey getting here.

“I didn’t have this as a career plan,” Cryan said. “…I feel very fortunate to have been able to get to this point.”

Cryan was born in Lowell, Mass., earned a degree in economics at Connecticut College in New London, Mass. Shortly after, she came to Madison to follow her heart, but ended up falling in love with the City she serves today as the Engineering Division’s highest manager as a woman.

Getting to the top has taken a lot of work, she’s never been afraid of.

Cryan started working in Madison, not for the City, but as a job developer at Operation Fresh Start, and then for Common Wealth Development, a nonprofit on the near east side, specializing in economic development and housing projects.

“Basically, my jobs have focused on working with people to provide access to job or business opportunities,” Cryan said.

At Operation Fresh Start, she helped young adults gain employment as their time with the program neared an end. At Common Wealth Development, she worked with small businesses. While at Common Wealth, Cryan worked with the City’s Affirmative Action Department and its contract compliance program to include women and minority businesses in construction projects.

 “That’s how I got interested in working for the City and the Affirmative Action Department,” Cryan said. “Thinking that [hiring women and minority] would have a real benefit.”

With that mindset, doors began to open with opportunities for Cryan, too.

She worked at the City of Madison Affirmative Action Department for eight years, was promoted to contract compliance officer, and worked a lot with the Engineering Division.

In 1999, Cryan was hired as the Operations Supervisor in the City of Madison Engineering Division, to manage its operation crews, who clean and repair the City’s sanitary and storm sewers and monitor and maintain its closed landfills.

“When I first came here, I remember I was warned that some people thought, ‘they’re going to chew her up and spit her out at [Engineering’s Operations Facility] Emil Street,” Cryan said. “I’ll always remember the first person I met -- Bill Schlotthauer, a heavy maintenance operator. He went out of his way to introduce himself and welcome me.”

In 2007, she was promoted to Engineering Operations Manager, then a few years ago, promoted to Deputy Division Manager, the highest position ever held by a woman in Engineering, and she’s continuously making her mark from the standard of culture and equity she holds for all employees she hires, works with daily and manages. It’s her fair approach that helps make Engineering, typically a male-dominated realm of work, more welcoming to people and not welcoming to unacceptable or inequitable behavior. It’s how she handles any instance that challenges that vision for the division.

“You need to interrupt the behavior, right away so everyone knows it’s not acceptable. For the person who did it or the person it’s being done to –all too often, we think, ‘oh, I don’t want to upset someone,” Cryan said. “We think it’s a politeness issue. Well, it’s not polite to say those things. Politeness goes two ways.”

For Cryan, it’s just how she’s always operated, however, her standard is what some employees say make it possible for them to feel welcome, especially women who are typically outnumbered in field positions, which Women in Construction Week brings awareness to.

“For me, [when we talk Women in Construction Week], I think of women in the trades,” Cryan said. “Construction -that’s what comes to mind, but it really is much bigger than that, it’s the whole process, – from design and construction to ongoing operations and maintenance. It’s unfortunate we still haven’t gotten that traction of getting women into field positions. It’s still not the norm.”

“The norm,” it’s something Cryan has never tried to conform to, but more so create a new “norm,” from her earlier years, to now.

“I hope at some point when women are hired for “non-traditional” or put in leadership roles, that people stop thinking she only got there because she was an affirmative action hire,” Cryan said. “Maybe she just got there because she worked hard. Maybe it’s because she deserved it.”

Deserving of opportunity comes with hard work, something Cryan knows very well. Anyone who you talk to knows Kathy works hard for her staff and the community. She's always busy opening doors for those who just want a fair shot.

“All this is about fairness,” Cryan said. “Everyone should have the same opportunities to compete for jobs and business opportunities, and I think that’s what we do well in the Engineering Division.”

So the next time anyone knocks on a door of opportunity at City Engineering, no matter their background, gender or experience, you can bet it’ll be open, and you’ll be greeted by someone who won’t let it shut, in fact, she’ll put her foot in front of it to make sure it stays that way.

City of Madison Engineering shared one profile a day as it celebrates National Women in Construction Week, March 1-7, 2020.

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