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2019 WTS-GNY Gala

By Adrienne Zicklin Kanter

WTS-GNY’s Gala is the highlight of any year. It brings industry professionals together to celebrate the achievements of women leaders and tomorrow’s rising stars. The 2019 Gala was held on Monday, October 7th at Battery Gardens Restaurant in Lower Manhattan.

During the cocktail hour, attendees were able to feast on magnificent views of New York Harbor as they networked and chatted with friends, colleagues and associates. They had gathered to honor the 2019 Woman of the Year, Denise Berger, Chief of Operations at PANYNJ. Berger, a WTS International board member, is a longtime supporter of the organization and its mission. The chapter also awarded scholarships to eight young women, who are certain to make their mark on the industry in the near future.

WTS-GNY was delighted to have Zoë Davidson, Milstein Properties general counsel; Elisa Picca, Nassau County Department of Public Works chief deputy commissioner and retired LIRR executive vice president; and Rick Cotton, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey executive director, among the evening’s featured speakers.
WTS-GNY President Alexa Gangemi began the program by welcoming everyone and thanking the chapter’s corporate sponsors without whose tremendous support the organization would be unable to continue its important work.  Ms. Gangemi then turned the stage over to Picca, who has been involved in market development, public affairs, procurement, and logistics and asset management sectors over the course of her long and distinguished career.

Ms. Picca  introduced Ms. Davidson, providing highlights of her multifaceted career, which involved a series of firsts: first female chief operating officer at MTA Capital Construction, and chief of staff and deputy general counsel; first woman on a large team of code writers at a major software company; the first woman web developer for a 24-hour cable news channel; and an international investigative journalist breaking stories on tobacco smugglers and private military cartels!  Davidson also helped to establish the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and served as its first director. 

Ms. Davidson provided an overview of statistics on women in the transportation field before honoring the scholarship winners.  “This year for the first time, the number of college-educated women surpassed men,” she noted. “Increasing demand in infrastructure combined with an aging workforce is fueling demand for engineers in the transportation industry, which should be providing more opportunities for women to enter the transportation field.  But women are getting pushed out of engineering at every level of their education and career.”

Indeed, since the 1980s, according to various records, Ms. Davidson explained that there has been a steady decline in the number of women who are pursuing careers in engineering. Davidson said that the field often is inhospitable to women.  Men tend to receive challenging assignments, while women typically are given secretarial work that “doesn’t value or cultivate their skills.” Davidson pointed out that women are interested in professions like engineering because they want to make the world a better place. However, she asserted that without assignments that provide a platform for meaningful work, even those who study and receive degrees in engineering, wind up pursuing careers in other fields where they believe they can make more of an impact.  

To help redress this situation, WTS is doing its part to help the next generation of women in the field. The chapter is proud of all the 2019 scholarship winners.

TransitCenter Transit Policy Innovator Graduate Scholarship – Christina Jang
Leonard Braun Memorial Scholarship – Somayeh Dejbord
Susan Miszkowicz Memorial Undergraduate Scholarship – Michele Chen
Molitoris Leadership Scholarship for Undergraduates – Avery Mack
Susan L. Kupferman Memorial Undergraduate Scholarship – Viktoria Molodecka
Junior College/Trade School Scholarship – Jenelle Samuel
Transportation You High School Scholarship – Nathalie Cavachi
Leadership Legacy Award – Jingqin Gao

The evening then transitioned from the industry’s future to one of today’s well-respected leaders. Rick Cotton, who has been PANYNJ executive director since 2017 and previously served as special counselor to the governor, offered words of praise as he introduced Woman of the Year Denise Berger.  As Chief of Operations in the Engineering Department, Ms. Berger oversees over 550 architects and engineers and a $1.3 billion annual budget. She has been credited with key engineering strategic initiatives, such as the implementation and expansion of integrated project delivery.  In addition, she oversees project controls, scheduling, construction cost estimating, technology, strategic planning and the department’s financial unit. She also is spearheading the effort to expand design-build as PANYNJ’s primary contracting method.

“In a male-dominated industry, Mr. Cotton pointed out, “it is very impressive that she became the first-ever female senior executive in the Port Authority’s engineering department executive leadership, reporting directly to the Chief engineer.”  He cited Berger’s effectiveness in making her male colleagues realize that the lack of women and minorities is to the agency’s and industry’s detriment. He also highlighted Ms. Berger’s commitment to nurturing and mentoring young talent.

Mr. Cotton went on to applaud her for her successful efforts in establishing the Port Authority Women’s Council (PAWC), whose mission is to “enable and empower women to thrive in their careers at the Port Authority of NY & NJ.”  The PAWC seeks to help women navigate through the agency and to address issues specific to women in the workplace; to celebrate women role models; to educate about different career journeys and lessons learned along the way; and to inspire women to own their careers and find their unique career paths.

Ms. Berger opened her remarks by expressing her appreciation for the opportunity to “work for and alongside some truly outstanding people, [from whom] I learned a great deal about architecture, engineering, project delivery and construction,” over the past 30-plus years.  She went on to discuss the privilege of working on many of the world’s busiest transportation facilities, which serve as “vital gateways for hundreds of millions of people.” However, Ms. Berger confessed that her career path had not been an easy one. She was often the only woman at a job site or at a design progress meeting.  

As her career evolved, so too did her personal life.  So, let me tell you now, of all the questions out of mentoring, the question that always rises to the top is how I managed work-life balance.... Everyone thought I managed it effortlessly. But this is where I must pause, because honestly for me, work-life - balance managing a family while managing a career- was really difficult. There were many times when I just wanted to opt out, especially when the babysitter quit or when my son or daughter was sick, or I just wanted to attend their class play.  Fortunately for me, I was working for some truly amazing people who respected my values; family and work, in that order. And I was lucky at that time the Port Authority had an option, something called ‘part-time and job shares.’ and I took advantage of that.  And I had strong support from my husband, my biggest advocate.

“[Despite] these challenges, ...I had just as many opportunities. I am grateful for [the many] opportunities and valuable relationships I have built over the course of my career. However, I look back over the evolution of women in transportation; it is an industry that does not have a history of welcoming women and continues to struggle with their integration.”

Ms. Berger then highlighted a recent study in which it was determined that although women account for 50 percent of the workforce, they only account for 37 percent of the global gross domestic product. The statistics, she pointed out, are far more dire in the transportation industry, where there is an ongoing struggle to attract and retain women.

She underscored the importance of women raising each other up, rather than engaging in a culture of competition. Generation Z, she warned, will not tolerate yesterday’s standards, so it is incumbent upon industry leaders to provide a more welcoming, flexible workplace that fosters cultural diversity.   For the transportation industry to grow, Berger stressed that it is essential to get young people interested in the myriad possibilities out there. One way is by encouraging them to participate in professional organizations such as WTS. Ms. Berger also emphasized the need to promote educational and career opportunities, focusing on minority recruitment efforts. She suggested creating a gender-balanced panel for new hires, as well as “family-friendly policies without retribution.”

“A woman alone has power.  Collectively, we have impact,” she declared.

Meanwhile, the event featured a raffle, whose proceeds went toward the WTS-GNY Scholarship Fund, which contributes to the scholarships that had been awarded. This year’s raffle raised $2850.  Thank you to all who participated and contributed.  Also, much gratitude to the Gala’s organizers.

Volunteers included (listed alphabetically by first name): Adrienne Zicklin-Kanter, Angela Devita, Ani Toncheva, Bibi Khan, Barbara Zietek, Brianna Shaw, Beth Zall, Christie Cohan, Daniela Zellers, Daniella Bernett, Desiree Gazzo, Ella McLeod, Fiona Robe,Hao Liu, Jane Huang, Janet McPherson, Julie Polak, Kaylee Moon, Keri Cibelli, Laura Eng, Linda Travis, Liz Archer, Leticia Caviness, Pamella Daley, Rigdha Banerjee, Sarah Colker, Sheriza Majid,  Sofia Berger, and Sophia La France Brooks. 




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