News Feature | December 18, 2017

Illinois Water Official, Now Retiring, Remembered As Trailblazer For Women

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

gender reg new

In the male-dominated water industry, Kyla Jacobsen stood out during her more than three decades of service.

As Jacobsen put it, "I can count on one hand the number of women I know who have headed water departments." After 32 years in the water department in Elgin, IL, Jacobsen is retiring, and she took some time to share her experiences and reflect on the state of the industry.

Elgin began as a water chemist in 1986, rose to water director by 2005, and became utilities director in 2009. She has also served as public services director, according to the Elgin Courier-News.

Jacobsen received a master’s in biochemistry from Northern Illinois University. She has responded to delicate issues during her lengthy career, including anxieties among customers after the Flint water crisis, previous news coverage shows.

When Jacobsen started the gig as chemist for the water department, "she said a secretary was the only other woman in the department. When she stepped down, she was one of eight women in the 74-member utility department."

Jacobsen has faced sexism in an industry that is dominated by men.

“She remembers an office Christmas party in the late 1990s, when her boss told staff that the women would clean up afterward. But Jacobsen said such overt sexism has waned over the years. Her upbringing helped her deal with the gender imbalance,” the report said.

"I've always been one of the guys. My dad also taught me early on not to take any crap from anybody," Jacobsen said, per the report.

Jacobsen would like to see more women in the industry. In retirement, she hopes to continue reaching out to local school districts and career fairs to work on recruiting women to the field, the report said.

Per the Elgin Courier-News:

In her water work, Jacobsen oversaw water treatment at the Leo Nelson and Airlite water treatment plants, water distribution, metering service, laboratory operations, storm sewer and wastewater conveyance. In addition to challenging traditional gender roles, Jacobsen said she helped change the culture of the water department to make it more inclusive, considering the thoughts of those working in daily operations as well as those designing and planning projects. She said she left her office door unlocked.

Research supports Jacobsen’s observations about a lack of women in the water industry.

“American Water Works Association Communications Director Greg Kail said a study published in late 2013 noted just 6.1 percent of water utilities are headed by women. Still, Kail said there is evidence that more women are in water works jobs. In the group's 2016 state of the water industry report, a survey of 1,700 members, Kail said only 3 percent of the respondents over the age of 65 were women, but of those 25 and under, an equal number of males and females responded,” the report said.

The annual AWWA report on the state of the water keeps tabs on gender balance in the industry.

In 2016, “the survey hinted at a seismic shift in the gender demographics of the water sector. Only 3 percent of respondents over age 65 were women, but the imbalance reduced dramatically as age categories decreased until women outnumbered men for those 25 and younger,” AWWA reported.

In 2017, “the male-female response numbers were nearly identical to last year’s. Of the most recent respondents, 24 percent are women with the greatest gender imbalance in the 65-and-over category, where only 7 percent are women,” AWWA continued.

For similar stories visit Water Online’s Labor Solutions Center.

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