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Board Spotlight: Stephanie Dawson


Each member of WTS International's board of directors is dedicated to the fulfillment of the mission to attract, retain, and advance women in the industry. This month, the Board Spotlight column features Stephanie Dawson, who is in her second term on the board and has been an active member of WTS for 10 years.

WTS: Let’s start with your role at Port Authority. Can you tell us a little about the agency, and what you do?

SD:  I am the Acting Chief Operating Officer at the Port Authority of NY & NJ. In that role I am a direct report to the Executive Director of the Port Authority of NY & NJ, with responsibility for guiding Aviation, Tunnels, Bridges, and Terminals, Port Commerce, and PATH Rail Departments, as well as the Operations Services Department and the Office of Storm Mitigation and Resilience. With such distinct businesses, a key part of my job is embracing and enforcing “One Agency” initiatives that are focused on organizational excellence and alignment. The Chief Operating Officer portfolio includes more than 4,000 employees, with a revenue budget of more than $4 billion. 

WTS: Where did you get your start in the industry?

SD:  I actually started in the military. I completed basic training and advanced individual training in the quartermaster (supply) field, before becoming an Army Ordnance Officer in the National Guard. In the ordnance arena I served as Maintenance Officer for the bulk of my career and was the Commanding Officer for a Light Maintenance Company which repaired and set up radios, generators, and other electronic equipment, with additional responsibility for warehouse operations, recovery operations, and allied trades. I also was the Commanding Officer for the 27th Rear Area Operations Center (RAOC) during an overseas tour for Operations Iraqi Freedom. Ultimately I became a qualified transportation and later logistics officer before becoming a Sustainment Brigade Commander, where I oversaw transportation, logistics, trucking, military police, and other operations. 

My military experience was helpful when I joined the Port Authority of NY & NJ, working in the Technology Services Department where I primarily focused on Security Systems, Building Management Systems, Telecommunications Systems, Revenue Systems, and Technology Project Management. I rose through the technology ranks and later seized the opportunity to spearhead the Agency’s Capital Program Office and later the Operations Programs Office, working directly for the Chief Operating Officer.     

WTS: What drives you to commit to the WTS mission?

SD:Women are a big part of the workforce today, and given the high rates at which they are completing Bachelors and Masters degrees and higher, they are entering the transportation field earlier and moving faster through the ranks. The entry rates and levels mean they will be positioned earlier in their careers for rapid advancement where human factors skills, in addition to their technical skills, are increasingly important as they move into indirect leadership roles.

I believe that my experience, proven leadership, technology knowledge, and homeland security experience as well as military experience is quite a blend of eclectic skills, useful for understanding the pitfalls and opportunities to forge new ground, which can be insightful for women in the pipeline and in various stages of their careers.

I primarily worked for male managers and mentors in non-traditional roles, and they helped and guided me along in exchange for my hard work and ability to execute for them. Now I am a living embodiment of the WTS vision of championing the advancement of women in the industry and understand the equally important value of being a role model to other women at various stages of their career. While I have both public and private sector experience, the diversity of my public sector experience is fairly unique and allows me to connect on many levels with leaders, emerging leaders, and core membership.   

WTS: What has been your experience as it pertains to women in leadership roles and career development? What have you witnessed during the course of your career?

SD:  I had male managers, mentors, and sponsors throughout most of my career, who in my opinion took a broader view of their careers and mastered the networking and diversification strategies early. Often I think women have not diversified their experience early enough in their careers, particularly if advancement upwards is blocked.

Typical of my generation of women, I only worked for one women in my career, though I had roles in the financial industry as a bank operations manager; city government, where I worked on systems and operations, including change management; the military; and I currently serve in a bi-state organization. 

WTS: What do you think is the best path forward to making change in the gender makeup of the transportation industry?

SD:  I believe demographics illustrate that change already underway. Women have the skills they need, but they often don’t have the experience. Strictly based on demographics, men and women will work for women at a point in their career or at different points in their career. 

I think the challenge will be in making the best use of the skills that women bring to the table, as they take on supervisory, management, and executive roles at earlier points in the career, given the rapid retirements of the baby-boom generation.

We have to make transportation the career of choice, for women who increasingly will be in high demand and have their own choices to make about where the best opportunity is.   

WTS: Why did you feel it was important to join the WTS International Board?

SD:  Given my diverse background, I think I have a lot of insight and support to provide. As my role has evolved on the board and at the Port Authority, I believe that the organized and deliberate—not ad-hoc—thinking and experience that I bring is helpful during these times of rapid growth in the industry and the WTS organization.

WTS: Where are the opportunities for the next generation of leaders in this industry?

SD:  The greatest opportunities for women will be in accepting the hard and technical jobs early in their careers, since that is where the greatest learning, development of skills, and achievement occurs.   

WTS: What strategies do you feel will help bring WTS closer to achieving its mission?

SD:  WTS will need to continue to grow and adapt while staying true to its core mission of advocacy, education, networking, and support, and connecting with and leveraging like-minded organizations, as well as organizations that focus on single disciplines, like rail, aviation, maritime, tunnels and bridges, architecture, engineering, technology, maintenance, and ITS. 




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