Alexandria City Public Schools
Alicia Hart

Expanding Opportunities for Women

April 4, 2022
In the male-dominated field of facilities and operations, women in the Alexandria (Va.) school district have risen to key leadership roles.

When a student in an elementary or secondary school walks into a classroom, odds are that the teacher overseeing the day’s instruction is a woman. Federal statistics from 2017-18 say that 76% of the nation’s public school teachers were female; at the elementary level, the percentage rose to 89%.

But when one looks at the administrators responsible for building and maintaining the facilities where the teaching occurs, the female perspective is less evident. An analysis of data by the Zippia job search website found that across all industry sectors, women accounted for only 19.6% of facilities and operations directors.

But that’s not the case in the Alexandria (Va.) school district, where women are holding down the top jobs in facilities and operations.

“In the culture of Alexandria City Public Schools, I have always felt welcomed and embraced—in this position and in the positions I have held since I’ve been with this organization,” said Alicia Hart, the district’s acting chief of facilities and operations. “In some of my former capacities, that was not my experience. If the culture of an organization is not embracing of women in leadership, that is going to funnel down into the core of the organization.”

Hart is not the lone woman in the Alexandria district with a leadership role in facilities and operations.  Amanda Ou was hired by the district last year as director of maintenance and custodial services, and Erika Gulick has worked her way up the ranks to become the district’s director of capital programs, planning and design.

“It’s actually very refreshing to see women in leadership positions here,” Ou said. “It’s very empowering, and it builds a culture of support that I probably didn’t get in my past roles.”

Breaking tradition

That hasn’t always been the case at other career stops, Ou and Gulick said. Both have had to endure instances of condescension and “mansplaining” from their male cohorts.

“I would sit in a meeting, and most of the time, I would be one of two women in a room of 20 people,” she recalled. “It can be very jarring to see that in the construction management world, it is male-dominated. But I kind of used that as motivation to climb the ranks and learn the construction management world and the facilities world.”

Gulick added: “In previous positions, I have had those experiences. I think that being female and also being young has led to people not trusting my judgment. I would now say that those experiences are less and less frequent.”

Hart joined the Alexandria district in 2019 as director of educational facilities. She was promoted in 2020 to director of facilities and operations and became acting facilities chief in 2021.

“When I started in the industry in 2004, the industry was still extremely male-dominated,” Hart said. “A lot of that is due to the fact that construction and management was deemed to be a masculine occupation. I don't think women were encouraged to go down that career path.”

Persuading women to develop an interest in career fields historically dominated by men is still a difficult task. “Career Insights: Women, STEM, and the Talent Shortage,” a study released in March 2022 by YouScience, which conducts aptitude-based assessments, looked at test results from more than 100,000 female high school juniors and seniors and compared their aptitudes for certain career fields with their self-expressed interest in those fields.

The study found that women’s aptitude for occupations related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics far outweighed their interest in those occupations. Specifically, women’s aptitude for careers in architecture and engineering was 10 times greater than their interest in such a career. Their aptitude for careers in installation, maintenance and repair was 31 times greater than their expressed interest.

 “Our research shows today’s young women have what it takes to be successful in a wide range of careers, but are not being guided to these careers,” said Jeri Larsen, Chief Operating Officer at YouScience.

Hart agrees with that assessment and hopes the examples she and her colleagues are providing in Alexandria will bring about change.

“We still need more representation for women,” she said. “I hope we can really start to showcase this as a viable industry for women who are coming up.”

The increased emphasis that many education institutions have placed on STEM-based curriculum could persuade more young women to view positions in facilities and operations a suitable vocation.

“I think some of the push in the younger generations for girls to pursue STEM careers is making a difference,” Gulick says. “I think it will continue to improve.”

Different perspective

Female teachers, who make up the majority of instructors, may believe they have a greater rapport with female facility administrators and feel that their input on how schools are designed and built is being taken seriously.

”We’re able to engage with a lot of our female teachers on a different level,” Gulick says. “We’re moms. We know the issues of day care. Being able to connect with some of the female teachers might be something we’re a little bit more capable of doing. We’re able to engage them in these construction projects and understand their wants and needs.”

The district has several sizeable facility projects in the works, part of the Alexandria district’s $500 million capital improvement program. A $150 million construction project will result in a new building on the Minnie Howard campus of Alexandria City High School. A new elementary campus to replace the existing Douglas MacArthur Elementary School is under construction and scheduled to open in August 2023.

At the same time, Hart and her staff have had to continually respond to the demands placed on them—acquiring and stockpiling personal protective equipment, upgrading HVAC systems—as the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted school facilities.

“The biggest challenge is the continual pivoting that the teams have had to do based on the various phases of the pandemic,” said Hart. “When things are thrown out of whack, you have to think out of the box, and my team was able to do that in a number of ways. We now know we have a game plan on how to be prepared for the unknown when it comes to a pandemic—particularly any pandemic that may be airborne. It’s been a tough two years, but coming out of it we are much more prepared to be able to quickly re-engage those efforts if something like this ever happens again.”

Role models

Having women in top facilities and operations posts in the Alexandria district is a “testament to the gender improvements we are seeing in this industry in terms of access to leadership positions within this industry, in terms of acceptance in these leadership roles,” Hart said.

“It can encourage young women who may have an interest in the facilities and operations field to embrace it and follow that career path—to become certified project managers, to become engineers or architects.”

About the Author

Mike Kennedy | Senior Editor

Mike Kennedy, senior editor, has written for AS&U on a wide range of educational issues since 1999.

Sponsored Recommendations