Did Connie Crawford, the first-ever female chief engineer at the New York City Transit Authority, ever experience blatant sexism? After all, since 1981, she has been a civil engineer who frequently used to be the only woman in a room of hundreds.
Yes, she says, but she hardly noticed it. “One reason I’ve succeeded as I have is that I grew up with four brothers,” she says. “The joshing among my siblings was good preparation for a male-dominated career. I am simply comfortable being among men. Maybe [at work] I had guys say stupid stuff or was in a meeting where someone ignored me. But I didn’t let it bother me.”
Crawford’s ability to be “one of the guys” comes combined with a strong nurturing sensibility that has inspired other women, minorities and especially young people. With her tall, athletic frame, Crawford, now overseeing major U.S. efforts with the Louis Berger Group, is easy to spot at industry conferences and at the exuberant NYC FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) student competitions she has attended as a judge and board member for over a decade. It’s even easier considering there’s usually a non-stop line of other industry bigwigs vying to say hello.
“Connie has a sharp sense of humor and a keen appreciation for irony, but she is a very careful communicator,” says Lonnie Coplen, director of sustainable construction for McKissack & McKissack. “She never stops listening, and she’s very aware that people listen to what she says and how she says it.”
Brothers notwithstanding, it was a woman who nudged her into civil engineering. In her junior year of high school, Crawford, an all-around excellent student, could have chosen anything. She went to see her counselor, a biologist. “She said, ‘What about engineering?’” Crawford recalls. “I said, ‘What’s engineering?’ She said it was a practical application of science.” Interest piqued, Crawford attended a panel featuring four women engineers. “The aerospace engineer flew there in her own helicopter. That was so cool,” Crawford laughs.
Crawford, now 57, became a bridge engineer with Steinman Boynton Gronquist Birdsall in 1981. Her progress was rapid. In 1997, she became the first female chief bridge engineer at the New York City Dept. of Transportation. As she moved up, Crawford notes, the leaders felt more comfortable promoting women throughout the ranks.
She spent two years with Parsons Corp. before Mysore Nagaraja, then Transit Authority chief engineer, picked her as his deputy in 2001. “If you are good at managing, whether it’s a bridge, transit, et cetera, the same principles apply,” says Nagaraja, now chairman of Spartan Solutions. “She’s results-oriented—that’s what counts.”
With programs like NYC FIRST and the Transportation Diversity Council, Crawford aims to inspire women, minorities and youth the way she was inspired. “That panel was a full day of these women talking about what they do. You’re solving important problems and making the world a better place. Who wouldn’t want to do that?”