Patty Brubaker grew up working on a cattle ranch outside of Lander, Wyoming, with her two sisters. When some little girls were playing with dolls and experimenting with makeup, Brubaker and her sisters were learning how to haul hay and drive a tractor.
She saw her mother and father working hard, side by side at the family’s meat packing plant.
“I was always kind of a tomboy,” Brubaker said. “I never cared much for girly things, and I’ve never been afraid of physical labor.”
So it came as no surprise to those who knew her when Brubaker chose to pursue a very “non-girly” career in science. Today, she is the manager of Denver Water’s Marston Treatment Plant, where she leads a team of 21.
Women are 47 percent of the U.S. population, but they are much less represented in science and engineering. Women make up 39 percent of chemists and material scientists, 28 percent of environmental scientists and geoscientists, 16 percent of chemical engineers and just 12 percent of civil engineers.
At times, young women have been discouraged from pursuing careers in these disciplines. Hear Brubaker describe being the only female in her high school physics class:
Undeterred, she became the first person in her family to go to college, setting her sights on medical school and eventually earning a microbiology degree. She began her career in health-related research, but found few advancement opportunities and soon became bored.
In 2003, Colorado was in the throes of a severe drought, and the environmentally minded Brubaker turned her attention toward water. She got a job at Denver Water’s Foothills Treatment Plant, where she was the only female operations and maintenance technician.
“When you’re a woman and you take on a physical job, there is always a question of whether you can hold your own,” she said.
What could have been a tough work environment was made easier by a team of supportive co-workers. “I didn’t place limits on myself, so my co-workers didn’t either,” Brubaker recalled. “As a result, I never felt like I was given less challenging tasks because I am a woman. My co-workers trusted I could do the work and I always felt supported.”
When Brubaker went back to school in 2008 to study environmental engineering, the demographics of the classroom had changed. About a third of the students in the general science classes were women, though the number of women in physics, chemistry and advanced math courses was still noticeably low.
With the flexibility and financial support of Denver Water, Brubaker earned her master’s degree and in 2013 became the manager of the Marston plant. There are five other women working at the facility.
“The big change I’ve seen is not necessarily the hiring of more women — although that is important — but that women are progressing into senior and manager roles,” Brubaker said. “It’s really quite impressive considering this was unheard of just a few years ago.”
With the national push to encourage girls and women into science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers, Brubaker believes persistence and confidence can help women break into these male-dominated fields. Hear Brubaker’s advice for women to get their foot in the door:
Brubaker acknowledged it’s not easy starting a career, no matter what your gender, and believes having strong, supportive mentors can help.
In addition to her high school principal, parents and sisters, a close group of college girlfriends helped inspire Brubaker whenever she felt discouraged. “We still keep in touch,” she said. “Most of them are also in science-related fields, so we all share the same struggles and celebrate many of the same victories.”
And no matter how advanced you are in your career, you can always learn more from those around you, Brubaker added.
“Today, I rely on my fellow treatment plant managers daily and look to them for advice and inspiration.”