Who in your household is in charge of how your waste is managed? While bringing the recycling to the curb may be the kids’ job, studies have shown that the female head of the household is usually the one in charge when it comes to how waste is managed inside. This practice is carrying over into the professional sector as more women are taking on various roles in the waste management industry.
To learn more about this trend, I interviewed Sherry Brotherston who is the Team Lead in Landfill Operations at the Halton Waste Management Site (HWMS). Sherry is well-respected on our site and is a shining example of someone excelling in a non-traditional role for women.
NM: As Team Lead, what do your duties include?
SB: My duties include running heavy equipment, staff scheduling, the coordination of projects (such as the capping of cells, erosion control and aesthetics), contract administration, short and long term planning, management support and customer service.
NM: What aspects of your job do you most enjoy?
SB: I really enjoy being on the equipment, creating and building things. I find it very relaxing and I enjoy visualizing in 3D, creating as you go, similar to sculpting (Sherry uses her creative energies at home as well with pottery).
NM: What are some of the challenges?
SB: The weather is a huge challenge for us at the HWMS. Extreme heat or cold impacts our work and can also create extra work. Our site is not like other construction sites, we do not close down operation; we have to keep going.
While I really enjoy the peace and quiet of the equipment, another challenge is that the equipment is physically hard on you (sitting in a 35,000 tonne machine that’s compacting garbage can be a bumpy ride). Also, enforcing the site rules on contractors and customers can also be a challenge at times.
NM: How did you arrive to be in the position that you are in today?
SB: I was originally in office administration, though as a single parent I realized that I had to earn a “man’s” wage. I always wanted to drive a truck, which was inspired by the numerous trips I would take with my parents driving from Alberta to Ontario. So I set out to do a transportation course at Sheridan College where I was exposed to heavy equipment operation. Driving home after graduation I saw a construction site with a scraper. I stopped and told the foreman “I can do that.” He laughed and said “Ok, come back tomorrow!”
I called a friend to get some expert advice on how to operate the machine, as I didn’t know exactly how to operate a scraper! I went back the next day and was fortunate to have the foreman take me under his wing, train me and then vouch for me to get into the union.
After 10 years in construction I became an instructor at Sheridan College for the Women in Non-traditional Trades program. I worked between Sheridan and the private sector for two years.
Sheridan closed their heavy equipment school and a position became available at Halton Region as they were opening a new landfill site. The waste management industry consisted mainly of men at this point and hiring a woman, especially for heavy equipment, was definitely breaking the norm.
NM: Who were your mentors along your journey?
SB: I’ve had a lot of great mentors during my career. Ziggy Moredale at the first construction site I worked at took a chance on me and taught me how to run the equipment. Ray Maggio with Maggio Construction taught me how to be good with the equipment; he taught me finesse and the ins and outs of construction.
At the HWMS, Bill Lendvay (now retired) took the time to teach me the nuances of municipal government. He would involve me in many aspects of landfill operations, was always willing to share his knowledge and continually challenged me. He provided the training I needed to become a Team Lead.
I have learned that no matter what stage of your career, you should always look for a mentor.
NM: What have been some important lessons you have learned along the way?
SB: In any industry, you should always be willing to learn. Never think you know it all. I have learned to have patience and a thick skin, and that I must separate work and my personal life, for many women this can sometimes be one in the same. I remain professional at all times and I ensure that people do not take advantage of me.
I have learned (and she has proven) that women are fantastic in the heavy equipment industry as they can be less destructive with the equipment and are usually very reliable!
NM: What advice would you have for young women getting in to this industry, or your position in particular?
SB: Constantly demonstrate your ability, without attitude, and know that you’ll be under the microscope. Be credible, ensure that you both dress and act the part. Be taken seriously, you never know the trickle effect of some of your actions, especially as a woman.
Maintain professionalism at all times. The industry is geared toward competition. You compete with yourself as well — how to do something faster, better. If you fall into serious competition, it could be your demise!
Know your limits and acknowledge your differences between you and your male counterparts. There may be areas where you have to ask assistance from one of the guys and vice versa. When both sides acknowledge these differences you have a balanced working relationship.
NM: Thank you Sherry! Sound advice from a woman who is successful in an unconventional waste management career.
If you or someone you know is looking for an environmental career, keep in mind that the industry is full of many diverse opportunities!