By Cheryl Higley
Editor’s Note: At the 21st Snow & Ice Symposium in Cleveland, OH, Snow Business convened a roundtable with women in snow and ice management to discuss life in a predominantly male-dominated industry. Acknowledging that differences between men and women are inherent, we chose to focus not on what women “can’t do” but rather how they are blasting those perceptions to create a path for those who have what it takes to get the job done. The following story features excerpts from the conversation.
Deb Mattson, CSP
Director of Operations
Schmidt Lawn Care
Former Director, SIMA Board of Directors
Deb started in the insurance industry as an adjuster. She has spent 20 years in the snow industry, first with her cousin’s business and now she runs her company’s snow operations. She was one of the first two women elected to SIMA’s Board of Directors. She’s also mom to 8-year-old Jeanie, who she spends every day showing what grit, determination and pride in snow and ice looks like. “I am still driven to prove myself every day. I love being a contractor - most days!”
Karen Plank, CSP
President & CEO
Cascade Snow Removal
Soda Springs, CA
Karen is at home in the snow. She had worked 10 years in the ski resort industry when her current business partner said to her 17 years ago, “I just bought a tractor. Let’s start a snow company!” Today, Cascade provides state-of-the-art snow services to residential clients in the cut-throat mountain resort market east of Sacramento. “I don’t think (although I’m sure my partner and employees will disagree) that I work harder than others, but I do work smarter. Everyone has a hard time keeping up with me!”
Angela Cenzalli, CSP
Angela took a unique path to snow and ice, having previously run a children’s museum. Her first interview 15 years ago lasted two hours, after which she was told she was unqualified but that “you can’t leave.” She started on a mowing crew, taught herself to plow, got involved in SIMA and took the time to become educated as a CSP. Today, she works in a family-owned business and is teaching the youngest son about the industry. “I wish it didn’t snow, but I have a passion for it!”
Laura Ingram, CSP
Director of Operations
Secretary/Treasurer, SIMA Board of Directors
Snow is all Laura ever knew growing up, yet she went to college to become a teacher. Pride in her family’s business shifted her career path and she joined the company full time 11 years ago. She and her sister, Michelle, will take over from their dad Rick when (if) he retires. “I will forever be grateful to my dad who brought me into this company from the ground up. I know what I’m asking my guys to do because I’ve done it. I may be in charge, but I’m one of them.”
In case you’ve been living under a rock, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the snow and ice management industry - like other blue-collar vocations - has a labor challenge. At press time, the unemployment rate was around 4% in the United States and 6% in Canada. With a shrinking talent pool, less focus on promoting vocational trades and working conditions that don’t exactly draw droves of qualified candidates, we have a problem. Our roundtable participants, though, say the answer may be hiding in plain sight.
“We are struggling for help, but we can’t look at each other’s companies and try to pick each other off,” says Jaxtimer Landscaping General Manager Angela Cenzalli, CSP. “The green and snow industries are not tapping into the female population. We have to find the way to get the word out that you can be a woman and succeed in this industry at all levels.”
Deb Mattson, CSP, director of operations for Schmidt Lawn Care and a former member of SIMA’s Board of Directors, says the road has been bumpier than she had hoped.
“Since taking over at Schmidt, I’m amazed how many times I’ve had to defend my gender,” she says. “During bid season this year for a renewing client, I was required to bring my resume. I asked if others were required and was told no. One of the gentlemen on the town council spoke up and said: ‘They’re surprised you’re a girl.’ At least he was honest. It’s unfortunate but I can deal with honesty.”
The roundtable participants admitted experiencing gender bias to some degree, but they all said they are determined to take gender out of the equation, striving for equal opportunity and equal standards.
Laura Ingram, CSP, director of operations for Ingram Enterprises, says she was raised by parents who didn’t care about gender. What she could and couldn’t achieve was up to her.
“I never heard any excuses because I was female. It shouldn’t matter if I’m a woman. It matters that I can do the task at hand and do it well,” she says. “Once that becomes a belief in your mind, the rest is immaterial.”
That said, Ingram knows there are challenges, prejudices and assumptions that arise from being a woman in a male-dominated industry. She has chosen to overcome those by showing she can hold her own.
“If I am going to come into this industry and into my company working alongside people that have been doing this since I was in diapers, I had better show serious willingness to understand what it is like to do the jobs they are being asked to do. That means getting in the trenches with them and getting things done - at the same standard that is expected of them. Anything less would be a disservice,” she says.
Cenzalli says slights aren’t always deliberate - it’s that the conversations aren’t taking place. She has seen it in her own company, noting this past season was the first year they didn’t lay off the women in the winter.
“I said, ‘What is wrong with you? We have all this labor and you’re going to send them home?’ The women were relieved not to be laid off. They were integrated into the snow operations and did quite well. It wasn’t that management was being discriminatory — they just assumed. They didn’t have the conversation and the women didn’t ask,” she says.
Once those conversations can be had and when trust has been built, that is when gender fades into the background.
“It’s worth it once you can get past the preconceptions,” Cenzalli says.
She gave an example from this spring when she authorized her team to buy two pieces of equipment from their regular vendor. Her employee called her and said they wanted a credit card (which ran counter to the previous purchasing procedures that were done on credit). She told them to tell the vendor they would buy them elsewhere and to walk away. It wasn’t long before they called with the news that the vendor had changed his mind.
“I’m not willing to play the game. My team trusted me to do what I asked. If you can build trust between each other, the more we walk down that path versus making it a male-female thing, that will help turn the tide,” she says,” My guys know I have their back and they have mine.”
Mattson agrees, noting that part of building that trust means relying on skills that set her apart in a good way.
“My team looks at me like I’m their mom. I don’t always love that but I do take care of them. I listen to them, understand their struggles and I feed them!” she says. “My attention to them teaches my staff to take care of each other. That’s a girl thing, and I’m proud of it!”
Standing in my own way
Determination to prove that they are on equal footing with their male counterparts often becomes their Achilles’ heel - when the drive to show the world actually becomes a detriment.
After falling ill, Mattson was determined not to show weakness. Last summer, she kept working through treatment and one day collapsed while in the field.
“It was me trying to prove to myself that I could do it instead of doing what was right. I thought it would be a sign of failure. I put my team in the position of having to worry about me instead of focusing on the job,” she says.
Plank admits that over the years she has been able to build up a thick skin and learn not to take things personally - even when a competitor buried one of her machines in snow that took a day to dig out with a shovel.
“I had to learn to get over myself and knock that chip off my shoulder,” she says. “For me, getting caught up in that is caustic and unhealthy. I have learned to concentrate on what I’m doing and strive to do it better.”
Combating perceptions in the industry is one thing, but society’s perception that “girls don’t do that kind of work” is another hill to climb.
Cenzalli says it’s her job to educate people on how good this industry is and the opportunities that can be gained.
“I do a lot of high school job fairs. The last one was the first time I had girls climb up in the machines and really have a great conversation about what I do,” she says. “If we don’t do it, they’ll never know.”
Mattson says there is a whole generation of girls missing opportunities because they’re being told they can’t, or it isn’t their place, to do it.
“We can give women viable information. We’ve been in it, we know the challenges and how to overcome them,” she says. “But that mindset needs to change at home and in society. There is value in vocational trades and we need to figure out how to use our voice to lift up this great industry.”
Ingram agrees. “I hope that with this article we can show women that the opportunities are there and encourage them to quit shorting themselves. Did I ever think I was going to plow snow for a living? No! But not everyone can plow snow for a living. It takes a special group of people to do that. To be part of that group, it’s the greatest thing.”
When asked whether they thought there would ever come a time when gender didn’t matter, responses were mixed. But what the roundtable participants did agree on was that the pendulum is swinging in the right direction.
“So much progress has been made. I look at where we’ve come since I attended my first Symposium 10 years ago. Every person I met wanted to know who my husband was,” Mattson says. “It’s not a good old boys club anymore - and that’s because of strong women showing we can do the work and using our voices to show we belong.”
Keep it moving: Have ideas on how we can better promote snow & ice as a career for women? Have a great story to tell on life and leadership in the industry? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cheryl Higley is editorial director of Snow Business magazine. Contact her at email@example.com. Photos by Rob Wetzler.