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Women in the Industry - Christine Wolfe

March 18, 2020

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.

Christine Wolfe is the Government Relations Manager at Recology, an employee-owned resource recovery company serving communities across California, Oregon, and Washington. She oversees legislative and regulatory advocacy for the company, advocating for policies that shift our disposal models towards recovery and reuse. She supports Recology’s operations, environmental, and outreach teams in implementing statewide regulatory programs.

Christine also serves as a Director for the Northern California chapter of the Solid Waste Association of North America. Through SWANA, she is the Young Professional Representative for California and the Pacific Basin, working with universities to develop curriculum and foster student engagement in the resource recovery industry.

We talked to Wolfe to get her perspective on her time in the industry.

How long have you been in the industry?

Christine Wolfe (CW): 3 years

What is it like being a woman in this industry?

CWUsually, it’s just as engaging and unpredictable as being a man in the industry. But it’s not always easy. Whether working with internal or external stakeholders, I'm often the only young woman at the table. When you’re in those situations, it’s easy to feel there’s an insurmountable gap between your experience that of the other people at the table.I think women in particular are under a lot of pressure to be perfect. Every mistake can feel like a risk to your career, because you’re always struggling to seem credible.

I think it’s important to remember that it’s okay not to know everything — you probably still know a lot — and that it’s important to find mentors to whom you feel comfortable asking questions. I’m lucky to have a great group of colleagues, including a wonderful SWANA chapter, who really enjoy sharing their knowledge. As long as you are a dedicated team player and willing to learn new things, you deserve to be at any table.

What challenges did you have to overcome?

CW: Many talented, hardworking women came before me in California and made my transition into the industry pretty easy, and at Recology, so many of my colleagues, men and women, have gone above and beyond to provide me opportunities for success.

That said, everyone has biases and each of us has to work hard to break through those and be seen – and see others – as the individuals we all are. This industry attracts a lot of “guy’s guys.” I think sometimes, there's a sense among some folks that someone who looks and talks like I do must care more about nature than the jobs our industry creates (and the people who hold those jobs). It takes some courage and effort to stand your ground – that we can’t compromise on job creation or on environmental stewardship – and to show them you’re more than who you appear to be. It’s too bad that it’s up to the people who suffer the effects of bias to prove it’s wrong, but that’s how it is and will be for the foreseeable future.

What progress do you hope to see for the future?

CW: I would like to see more women where we’re underrepresented – in corporate leadership roles and in operations roles. This industry has so many day-to-day challenges that it becomes difficult to look up and see where we’re headed. So many of the women I work with are excellent about looking around and asking the question – where are we going? What systematic changes do we need to make to get there? Who do we need to bring in to get us back on track, or move us to a new one? More than ever, we need to be asking ourselves those questions as an industry, whether it’s from a safety, environmental, or market development perspective. Having diverse leadership perspectives, whether it’s at the facility level or at the corporate level, ensures we’re looking at all options for success.

I hope, also, that more men become comfortable being allies. Being an ally demands more than being a colleague – it means being attentive to your own bias and that of others and being active in combating that bias. Sometimes it feels awkward or unnecessary, but even if you evaluate colleagues based on merit and not their identity, there are a lot of other people you work with who don’t. The risk you take sticking up for someone is so much less than the benefit to your ally. After all, if you’re confident enough in someone’s potential to stand up for her, she might end up in a role where she can help you in the future. 

Who is your role model?

CW: My mom, obviously! She was a single mom who worked long hours six days a week to support us. I grew up in the back of the clothing stores she worked in (where I learned I hated working retail). After working for other people for years and learning the ropes of the retail industry, she was able to open her own store. Small business ownership is an amazing opportunity, for women especially, whose lives are often defined by their children. As much as I think I’m a pretty good kid, running her own business allowed my mom the intellectual and creative challenges we all deserve in our work. It was a big risk, but she took it, because she’s courageous, hardworking, and confident in her vision. When someone like that believes in you, it’s much easier to get through the self-doubt we all feel.

What advice do you have for other women entering a male-dominated industry?

CW: To be successful in a male-dominated industry, you have to walk the line between identifying with your male colleagues – whether it’s your passion for shared projects or shared interests outside of work – and not apologizing for who you are. We all have to work hard in this industry, and it’s a risky job. The most important thing is to be reliable, and by showing that you’re comfortable in your own skin, you show you have the confidence to survive through the bumps in the road we all face.

Something I use to ground myself when things get difficult is to look around at my colleagues and see how proud they are of the work we’re all doing. Recology is an employee-owned company, which means the hard work we do is for ourselves, and the service we provide is for the communities we live in. The hard work we do is for ourselves, and the service we provide is for our communities. That’s so much bigger than any one person, and it’s where real allyship comes from. Find the people in your network who make you feel like you’re part of something bigger.

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