By Gloria D. Gray
When I took my first leadership position in water 15 years ago here in our community and began to meet my new peers throughout the state, I did not see a whole lot of people who looked like me, either as an African American or as a woman. I know many of you have faced this in your workplace.
As the chair of the nation’s largest water district, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California – the first woman of color to ever lead this district in its 90-year history – I have the opportunity to try to expand the community of those working on important water issues.
We need to encourage anyone of any gender, color, creed or sexual preference to pursue their career dreams. And there are many good reasons to pursue a career in water. Providing safe and affordable water day in and day out is an incredible responsibility. And we best serve our community by having a workforce that truly represents it.
Metropolitan provides more than half of Southern California’s water, importing supplies from Northern California via the State Water Project and the Colorado River from our own aqueduct system.
When it comes to diversity and inclusion, we have come a long way, but we have further to go.
With a workforce of builders, laborers and engineers, Metropolitan was long dominated by men. In 1974, only 10 percent of employees were women. Nearly 87 percent were white. Embracing its first affirmative action strategy in 1991, things began to change.
Today, our workforce more closely mirrors the diverse communities we serve. Minorities are the majority, at 55 percent. Women comprise 43 percent of our professional workforce of engineers and water quality lab technicians. In the halls of Sacramento, where 68 percent of our lawmakers are men, Metropolitan has been led by women for 19 years, something few institutions can say.
More work lies ahead. Only one percent of our skilled craft workers are women, essentially unchanged for decades. Some have complained of harassment and have had the courage to share this directly with our board at public board meetings.
We’re listening and looking at ways we can build on the progress we’ve achieved over the years.
Last summer, in response to national conversations on these issues, Metropolitan launched its first-ever Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I) Council. This employee-led Council was convened to create a space for robust, open discussion about the cultural change necessary to help drive innovation within Metropolitan, and to improve the working environment for all employees. Comprised of numerous employee advocacy groups, all four of our bargaining units, and supported by representatives of executive staff, the Council is strategizing sustainable actions that will tangibly help achieve our diversity goals over time.
Diversifying the Metropolitan workforce and ensuring an inclusive workplace culture isn’t merely the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do. Study after study shows that more diversity creates a better, higher functioning organization. The benefits range from the ability to win top talent to increased employee satisfaction. The same is true for the workforce engaged in day-to-day operations throughout the region: our organization is strengthened by the breadth of experiences, talents, and perspectives lived and understood by each of our employees.
Leading by example starts at the top. I, along with my fellow board members and management team, are seeking to foster a culture of trust and respect, where everyone thrives. It also means examining the policies and practices of the district on an ongoing basis to ensure we are making real progress. The Board is in the middle of this review process. I am confident that real and substantive changes will come from this effort.
As you know, conversations about race, about gender, about diversity are not easy. We have had thoughtful and challenging conversations at our Board meetings and with our employees at our DE&I Council meetings. But this is how progress, and real change, start. It’s happening.
When we are successful at Metropolitan, anyone from any walk of life will come to that first day at work, look around, and feel at home. It is key to a reliable water future.
Gloria D. Gray is chairwoman of the Board of Directors of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and a director of the West Basin Municipal Utility District representing Inglewood.