We Can Do It!


Laura Briefer photo 2
Laura Briefer, Director of Public Utilities (Photo courtesy of SL Tribune)

An increasingly inclusive city, where half of Mayor Biskupski’s department directors are women

There are times — still — when Salt Lake City Transportation Director Robin Hutcheson walks into a meeting of engineers from other cities, eyeballs the room, and realizes she’s the only woman there.

“Yes, it still happens,” she says, followed by a sigh.

In many cities, full gender equity in employment — especially in leadership roles traditionally held by men — is still more talk than action. It’s gotten better. But it could get a lot better.

City transportation and engineering departments around the country are still pretty much a man’s world. The same holds for public utilities, airports, public works, and finance — even in cities often singled out as “progressive.”

The directors of Transportation and Planning and Zoning in Austin, Texas, are men. So are the directors of Public Works and the Austin Water Utility. The city of Denver’s Finance Director is male, as is the Wastewater Manager. Portland, Oregon? Male Finance Director. Male Environmental Services Director. Phoenix? Men oversee the Public Works Department, the Transportation Department, and Planning Department.

Salt Lake City is breaking the mold.

Counting Mayor Jackie Biskupski (who is only the second woman in 169 years to hold the job), there are 15 women at work in the Mayor’s Office. There are six men.

Fully half of city departments are now led by women. Mayor Biskupski — who has spent 20-plus years working for pay equity and leadership opportunities for girls and women in nontraditional jobs, politics, education, and public service — is looking to appoint more women and other underrepresented candidates at every possible turn.

“We’re building a city for everyone. It matters that our managers and employees reflect the full diversity of this city. I’m working toward that goal every day as we find opportunities for appointments and to advance employees in their professional development,” Mayor Biskupski said.

Science geeks and breaking barriers

Robin Hutcheson has been with the city for five years as Transportation Director and 15 years before that as a consultant planning transit systems, smart streets, and walkable cities. The Connecticut native calls the transportation engineering industry “a perfect fit. It blends my need for data and information with the softer side of any profession–helping people understand complex issues and looking for ways to positively impact their quality of life.”

Maureen Riley is overseeing the $1.8 billion redevelopment of the Salt Lake City International Airport, where she has been Executive Director since 2007. She has spent more than 20 years in municipal airport management. She is currently the Chair of the Board of Directors of Airports Council International and was named 2015 Director of the Year by the trade publication “Airport Revenue News.” The award is based on effective leadership, performance, and reviews from professional peers.

Leading the Department of Sustainability is Vicki Bennett, a chemist and self-described “math and science geek.” She recalls in the early ‘70s being channeled into an honors science class in the 9th grade because the required home economics course for all girls was full. “The next year I took chemistry from an incredible woman who was a true pioneer in her field,” Vicki said. “I started college knowing I would major in chemistry, eventually work in the sciences, and never looked back.”

Shortly after assuming office, Mayor Biskupski elevated Sustainability from a division to a cabinet-level department. Vicki’s main focus is on improving air quality — both within all city operations and among the public.

Mayor Biskupski toppled a big barrier this year in naming Laura Briefer Director of Public Utilities. Laura is the first woman director in the 140-year history of the department–which also happens to be the oldest retail water provider in the West.

She brings to the position 20 years of career and educational experience in managing culinary water, wastewater, storm water, and environmental stewardship. After moving from her native California to Salt Lake City in 2002, Laura says “I immediately grasped the mission of Salt Lake City to protect the Wasatch Mountains and the watershed for current and future generations.”

Working in Public Utilities for the past eight years, Laura has made herself an expert in the multiple responsibilities of the department. While many cities divide utilities into divisions for culinary water, wastewater, and storm management, Salt Lake’s department handles them all. She manages 400 employees–engineers, maintenance experts, customer service representatives, chemists, accountants, and more.

“First-woman director status” matters to Laura, but it is also a launching pad into wider discussions about workplace diversity, she said.

“Women in our industry are underrepresented when compared to the population we serve. But I’ve also started thinking about more representation in race, ethnicity, generational, economic background, and others. The bottom line for me is continuing to foster a workplace where respect for all of our differences is a core value that we take to heart.”


Robin Hutcheson, Director of Transportation (Photo courtesty of Downtown Alliance)


Who’s in Charge: SLC’s women department directors:

Vicki Bennett — Sustainability

Laura Briefer — Public Utilities

Gina Chamness — Finance

Robin Hutcheson — Transportation

Karen Krieger — Arts Council

Cindi Mansell — Recorder

Margaret Plane — Attorney

Kristin Riker — Parks and Public Lands

Maureen Riley — Airport

Nora Shepard — Planning

Lisa Schaffer — Public Services (interim)

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