By Portfolio Editor Roz Hamlett, with Gregory Quinn
For more than a century, nations the world over have celebrated International Women’s Day on March 8. In 1975, during International Women’s Year, the United Nations made the day official. This year, thanks to Denise Berger, Assistant Chief of Engineering Operations at the Port Authority, the agency is launching a mentoring group and annual conference designed to support women in transportation as they navigate the sometimes-rocky terrain of traditional male-dominated roles.
“I looked around one day and realized there were not many around who looked like me. There just weren’t many women in the Port Authority,” said Berger, whose career spans almost 30 years, and whose handiwork can be seen in photographs of some of the Port Authority’s architectural masterworks lining the walls of her light-filled corner office at 4 World Trade Center.
Berger’s youthful appearance belies the major role she plays at the agency, however. The New York Institute-trained architect oversees the operations of the Port Authority an engineering department, with an annual budget of more than $1.3 billion and comprising more than 500 architects and engineers.
Today marked the first Port Authority International Women’s Day program, organized by Berger and held at 4 World Trade Center. It featured a distinguished panel of women transportation leaders sharing their insights and experiences.
“I’m very excited. The response to the conference has been overwhelming. The desire for women mentoring other women has never been stronger,” said Berger.
The keynote conference speaker was Lillian C. Borrone, current Chairman of the Eno Center for Transportation in Washington, DC. Borrone is a retired Port Authority assistant executive director and the former director of port commerce. She began her career climb as a transportation technician in the Washington, D.C. Council of Governments. Along the way, she amassed an impressive breadth of experience that includes international trade and development, maritime real estate acquisition matters, aviation, mixed-use development projects, as well as transportation capital management issues. The Port Authority presented Borrone its first ever International Women’s Day Award.
“Gender equality isn’t just a question of fairness, but building the right workforce,” said Borrone to an overflow audience gathered in the Port Authority board room. Another instructive lesson, she said, was realizing that women working to advance at the agency needed to “stop competing with each other and start supporting one another.” Many of the women whose professional lives she touched were present to hear her recollections.
That Borrone helped shape the transportation system on which the New York/New Jersey region relies is an understatement. William Nurthen, general manager for environmental and water waste development programs at the Port Authority, worked closely with Borrone during her tenure as director of port commerce.
“Before I came to the Port Authority, I was a Navy captain for the military sealift command, headquartered in Bayonne,” said Nurthen.
“At the time, the Port Authority wanted to reopen the Howland Hook Marine Terminal on Staten Island. Many people didn’t believe that the Arthur Kill and the Kill Van Kull were wide enough to accommodate the larger ships that were now moving through the region.
“Lillian knew better. She called me up and asked that I send the largest ship we had to the Howland Hook Marine Terminal. I did. The ship maneuvered around Howland Hook just fine, and a lot of the public’s apprehension vanished,” said Nurthen.
“The Port Authority has come a long way since Lillian and others broke the glass ceiling,” said Berger, “They paved the way to follow. While we’ve made significant strides, our work is far from finished. My advice to young women is to study hard, especially in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). The Port Authority remains a place where there is untapped potential and opportunities awaiting future generations to make innovative contributions to the transportation industry,” said Berger.
The panel also included:
• Molly Campbell, Director, Port Commerce Department
• April L. Gasparri, Manager of JFK Operations, Aviation Department
• Jackie Grossgold, Civil Rights Program Manager, Office of Business Diversity and Civil Rights
• Jessica Mathew, Leadership Fellow, Planning and Regional Development Department
• Lauren E. Previte, Lieutenant, Port Authority Police Department
• Catherine E. Valenzano, Engineer of Projects, Aviation, Engineering Department.
Nationally, more women now outnumber male graduates of colleges and universities, and represent nearly half the workforce. Yet according to recent statistics from the U.S. Department of Commerce, women hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs, even though these jobs earn 33 percent more for women than non-STEM jobs. What’s more, the gender wage gap is smaller in STEM jobs than in non-STEM jobs.
“The first major trip that I took after I became Port Director was to Europe. None of the people I met with expected a woman to be the Port Director. And there were some people that made it very clear that they didn’t think very much of my role. They wondered how I got the job is the best way to put it. But after having interacted with me, where I would be able to answer them, they realized that I was just as professional as they were about our business. After that, we all got along very well,” Lillian Borrone — Boots on the Ground Flats in the Boardroom: Transportation women tell their stories