In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8, SWANA is highlighting women in the industry who have shown their dedication and hard work. In this male-dominated industry, each woman has had her own unique experience.
Brenda Haney is the Solid Waste Director for the City of Lubbock. She is also the Vice President of SWANA. She started working in the solid waste industry 27 years ago with a general consulting firm that did civil engineering design projects for municipalities. Haney focused on water, wastewater, a little bit of hazardous waste remediation, before moving her way into solid waste work.
Haney joined the TxSWANA Board in 2000 and served as the Secretary, Treasurer, Vice President, President, Past President and the International Board Representative for Texas. Over the years, she has hosted a state Road-E-O, a State Conference, and served as the Co-Chair of the local WASTECON® Committee.
We talked to Haney to get her perspective on her time in the industry.
How did you get into the industry?
Brenda Haney (BH): It was purely by accident. I'm an engineer by education, and I was working for a consulting firm, and was freed up on a couple of projects and they needed some help writing Regional Solid Waste Plans for the Councils of Government in the state of Texas, so I got volunteered to work on those projects, and I ended up writing five of the 24 for the state of Texas, and got into the solid waste industry with that as my jumping-off point. I started pursuing solid waste and landfill design projects, and it of carried on from there. This was our office’s first solid waste design project with a municipality, where we designed and did the construction oversight and a landfill permit amendment to bring into compliance with the then new Subtitle D regulations. I’ve been working in the solid waste industry ever since.
What is it like being a woman and engineer in this industry?
BH: Well, because I've been around for a while, there weren't a lot of women in engineering when I started in college. About 10% of the of the College of Civil Engineering was women, but for me, it was never that big of an issue because I grew up with brothers, so I guess I was accustomed to always being around guys, so I just kind of jumped right in. I got involved when I was a college student in professional organizations, and I jumped in with both feet into a leadership role. I guess I've always pursued that path of “how can I be engaged, and prove my value, and that I'm capable of doing this?” I grew up playing sports, so I've always been a bit competitive, and I took it from that perspective. When I started in consulting, there were only a couple other female engineers in the office, and they were kind of guideposts for me. They had been in the business a few years before me and they charted the waters and set me up so that there was a path for me. They were encouraging and supportive. I saw every opportunity to step up and step in the limelight and not shy away from those opportunities.
Did you feel you had to prove yourself in the position?
BH: Absolutely. I think if you're a woman or a minority in engineering specifically, it's largely dominated by white men, hate to say that, but you know you've got to work a little extra hard just to show that you're as good as your peers, just because of those differences.
And so, again, being competitive, that was just a challenge for me like, “no problem, I'm happy to do this faster or more completely, or more thoroughly” – whatever the challenge was, I was up to it and just kind of pursued it from that perspective, but there were always people that wanted to second guess because I was the woman giving them instructions or directions or leading the report or sealing the drawings or whatever the case was, but I didn't look at those as roadblocks or obstacles, I just took them as opportunities to prove how good I was and how capable I was.
I will say, when I was at my freshman orientation, the man that was doing the orientation told me I had no business being in the College of Engineering, that I was never going to be able to do the math. I was never going to succeed in the industry. I was just taking up a spot that should have been a boy and that was heartbreaking to hear. I had no intention of not ever completing my engineering degree, in fact I have a Master's in Civil Engineering, but that man served as my motivation for my entire college career because there was absolutely no chance that I was going to allow him to be victorious. I was going to prove to him how wrong he was and that I was every bit as capable as any other kid that had enrolled in the College of Engineering, and I was going to be there graduating four years later, which I was. About a third of the kids that enter the College of Engineering did not finish a four-year degree in engineering.
What progress have you seen being made in the industry?
BH: When I first got engaged beyond just being an engineer doing projects, to now, being actively involved in the industry, I've seen the number of women grow dramatically in this field. There was one or two women on the board when I first got on the board for TxSWANA and we've had as many as five or about 25% or so of the board made up of women. Right now we've got five women on the Board including our YP Representative, and I've just seen this continued growth of women in the industry, and honestly, they are some of the brightest people I had the pleasure of working with.
When you look at the Board of Directors for SWANA, 50% is female, and there was one or two women in the room when I first started in this industry. No matter what the number of people is in the room, half of them are probably female, so I think that's pretty good progress.
We're not all the way there but I think if half the population is female, and in any profession that we're in, if half the people that are working are female, we're doing well as an industry.
What progress do you hope to see for the future?
BH: I want to see young women encouraged to join this industry. I think we need the next generation of folks to come into this business. I spend a lot of time when I talked to student groups talking about the opportunities that exist in this industry, not just as an engineer from a technical standpoint, but there's marketing, there's education and outreach, there's the financial/analytics side of things, there's the communications part of it. This is a very strong industry, and there is tremendous amount of opportunity in it. It's a stable industry, it’s dynamic, and it’s growing and changing. But it's been around as long as there's been people and it's going to continue to be around as long as there are people, so it's a great opportunity for young women, and young men to enter the field.
I want to see a few people not getting into the field accidentally, but purposefully choosing to be in the solid waste industry. I want us, as an industry, to do a better job of talking about how great this business is. I have always said that if we can keep you in the business for 5 years then we can make this a lifetime for you. There’s something about the solid waste industry, you find out how great a business it is and the people in it are tremendous.
Do you consider yourself a pioneer in the industry? If not, what do you think it takes to be a pioneer?
BH: I guess, to some extent, I would have to be. This is still a field where people at my level are largely men. I see a little different side of that here in the state of Texas, because there are a lot of women, but yes, I think I’d have to be, because I didn't know many other women solid waste directors when I took on this role. I think there's a few of us here that would have to consider ourselves pioneers in the business.
Who is your role model?
BH: I have had role models all through my life. My first soccer coach, who is still alive today, I credit her with a number of things. She taught me how to compete, but to do it with grace and dignity, and to never give up, and those words, given to a nine-year-old girl have never left me. My high school physics teacher was absolutely amazing and what I loved about her so much was she truly loved what she did, and she gave back to the community. She taught neighborhood kids physics and had a science club in her neighborhood. I learned from her how to love what it is that you do on a day-in and day-out basis and how it's more than just doing the work, it's how you teach other people, and give back to the community.
The women that are in this industry now that I consider friends and colleagues, I learn from them every day. They challenge me every day, and beyond that, they inspire me every day. So, there are a lot of people that I would consider role models.
What accomplishments are you most proud of?
BH: First and foremost, my engineering degrees. There were not a lot of paths, or people that I had to look to, to show me the way to be an engineer. But I was 12 years old when I told my folks I wanted to go to Texas A&M and study engineering, and they kind of laughed and chuckled. I never let that goal pass me by, so that started me on my path. I had a sixth-grade math teacher that that said I was exceptional at math and if I were a boy, she would recommend me for the honors program, but because I was a girl, I wouldn’t need it. I overcame those obstacles along the way by just walking through them and never letting those be deterrents.
I think when I was promoted to the solid waste director for the City of Irving, and then when I started on my path as an officer at SWANA, those were all pretty significant milestones in my career. When I first came on to the International Board at SWANA, because, that put me on the path to ultimately moving into the president’s role. And I'd be remiss if I didn't thank the City of Lubbock too. They created this opportunity for me here and, and have been nothing but supportive and encouraging.
I've heard you still go out on a collection route every year. Could you tell me a little bit about that?
BH: Historically, I go out with a collection team and throw trash with a crew or I rotate onto several routes. This gives me an opportunity to work directly with my team and see the job from their perspective. We spend the time on the route getting to know one another and understanding each other's role. I also take time to go out on the landfill and work with this part of the team. I will weigh incoming vehicles, spot trucks and climb up into the equipment. My intent is to stay close to the team, understand their challenges and their ideas so that I can be their best advocate.
What advice do you have for other women entering a male-dominated industry?
BH: Don't let anybody ever limit what you accomplish. You are your only limitation. You're the only person that controls how far you can go, or where you stop and there are a lot of women that are in this business that are happy to answer questions, provide guidance, or just be there as a confidant to talk to. I can't say it's all women, there are some great men in this business that I have learned a lot from and have been incredible friends and associates along the way that have taught me plenty about this business. But the key thing for particularly women is that you're going to have more people try to challenge your abilities along the way. Don't let anybody limit what you do.
Sarah Beidleman, Marketing Coordinator, SWANA
Sarah is the Marketing Coordinator at SWANA. She enjoys meeting SWANA members and hearing their stories from the industry. Whether on the beach or in the mountains, Sarah's favorite way to spend her free time is heading outside and traveling.