March 16, 2020 by Sarah Beidleman
In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8 and Women's History Month, 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.
Susan Harrison started in the solid waste industry in 1994 as a consultant. She was working with wastewater treatment designs when her office started doing solid waste design as well. Susan is now an engineer at Waste Management, Inc.
We talked to Susan to get her perspective on her time in the industry.
What was it like being a woman in the industry when you first started?
Susan Harrison (SH): I would say that there’s definitely a sense that you have to prove yourself a little bit when you first meet someone – that they have to believe that you know what you’re talking about, but it isn’t insurmountable. And some of that may be due to age as well. When I first started, I was younger, a lot younger, and I think you have that same bias against someone who's less experienced.
What progress have you seen being made in the industry?
SH: The number of women has definitely increased in design roles and management roles.
What progress do you hope to see for the future?
SH: I hope that we continue to find better ways to dispose of waste – more efficient, environmentally protective ways to dispose of waste and hopefully greater resource recovery as we do that.
Do you consider yourself a pioneer in the industry? If not, what do you think it takes to be a pioneer?
SH: No, I think a pioneer is doing something that no one else has ever done and other people were doing it when I started – I didn't do anything different. I haven't invented anything or come up with anything unique that other people couldn't do.
What accomplishments are you most proud of?
SH: My children are the accomplishment I’m most proud of.
Who is your role model?
SH: I have a really great friend who's another female in the industry and her name is Marcia Papin. She has grown from an equipment operator to a division manager. She's gone much further along the path than I have. I started working with her in 1995. She's been on the International Board for SWANA for years.
How did you get involved in SWANA?
SH: I actually went to my first SWANA meeting as a business development tool. And then because it's a good venue for technical support and more importantly to meet other peers and other people in the industry, I just kept going. I served on the International Board for a while and I'm still a member.
What is your favorite part of your job?
SH: In general, the thing I enjoy most, is being able to support daily operations. Trying to find creative solutions to operational problems. One example is recently in the southeast, we had just been inundated with rain for months and trying to work through and problem solve with a manager to help them figure out a way to try and overcome mud for lack of a better term – something new we can try or just that collaboration and problem solving. Because at heart, engineers are problem solvers so that's really what we want to do.
What advise would you give other women entering a male-dominated industry?
SH: Be willing to get dirty. Be willing to try and problem solve alongside and be supportive of whoever's doing the hard job, because there's always somebody doing a job a lot harder than yours, and try to be supportive of that.