By Portfolio Editor Roz Hamlett
“If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again!” Sojourner Truth, 1851
Elizabeth Colon raised a daughter while working progressively to advance through the ranks of the Port Authority. She somehow found time to complete her college degree along the way. Today, Colon, a supervisor in General Patron Services for the Tunnels, Bridges & Terminals department, understands fully the challenges of a woman striving for the top in an otherwise male-dominated profession.
“I had to show my daughter that you can do this, even though I’d been a single parent and I worked rotating shifts. So I missed Christmas and holidays sometimes,” said Colon, a 34-year PA employee.
Colon began as a toll collector, later working as a Holland Tunnel agent who had to do the dirty work of a mechanic. “I was also learning CPR. I was learning firefighting. I was towing buses. I was towing trucks,” she said. “I was doing all these things and all the while asking myself, ‘how is this happening?’ But I stuck with it. It was challenging for me, but I told myself I’m going to do this because I can do this, and I did it.”
Colon was one of several senior PA women leaders who shared their experiences during a special International Women’s Day conference on Wednesday at Port Authority headquarters, an event featuring Veronique “Ronnie” Hakim, a veteran public transportation executive and interim president and CEO of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA).
“Women continue to face obstacles to professional success, institutional bias and the role that women take upon ourselves to strike the delicate balance between success in the workplace and a meaningful family life,” said Hakim. “Given that it’s 2017 and we haven’t yet achieved equal opportunity and equal pay for women, should we give up hope? No. Should we celebrate that women are here and are integral members of the workplace? Yes, yes and yes.”
Hakim recalled being approached by a tearful young engineer, a mother of two with a long commute, who was struggling and on the brink of giving up. She told Hakim she didn’t ever think she could juggle it successfully the way Hakim had.
“I said ‘whoa.’ Are we doing a disservice by appearing like it’s all easy. It’s not,” she said. “A lot of things didn’t go right. A lot of dinners didn’t get made. A lot of lunches were forgotten. But I am proud I’ve never left a kid on the sidewalk.”
The event was sponsored by the PA Women’s Council, which has been in existence for a year. The organization was created by PA assistant chief engineer Denise Berger, the president of the group, to empower women in their careers at the PA.
As part of the event, Port Authority Chief Operating Officer Stephanie Dawson was given an award by Executive Director Pat Foye, honoring her service over the years to the agency.
Eight panelists in all participated, including Evelyn Crespo, executive recruiter in Human Resources; Clarelle DeGraffe, the deputy director of PATH; Assistant Chief Gloria Frank of the Port Authority Police Department; Annesa Lau, a manager in the Office of Budget Performance and Analysis; Hilary McCarron, manager of Port Marketing; Amanda Rogers, an engineer in the Aviation Department, and Teterboro Airport General Manager Renee Spann. Stephanie Quappe (not shown), diversity & inclusion program director in Human Resources, lead the panel discussion.
“Success doesn’t happen overnight,” said McCarron, “We’re all going to encounter adversity at some point in our careers. It’s how you handle it that defines you.”