Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Polymers and Punctuation: Finding Her Own Path Through

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Polymers and Punctuation: Finding Her Own Path Through

Article excerpt

Here's Arletta Scott Williams at U.S. Steel in the early 1980s: an engineering undergraduate student at Carnegie Mellon University wearing a hard hat and a welder's coat over her uniform on the hot, hazy floor, working a turn as a shift foreman and trying to decide whether the metal that the workmen are sending through the line has been subject to the proper heat conditions to keep it from going to scrap.

"That's money to the company," she said.

But ask her about the hardest calls she had to make during the years she spent in the cooperative education program - rotating every four months between CMU classes and work at three U.S. Steel plants throughout the Monongahela Valley - and she doesn't name a crucial technical or financial decision.

"It would have been one of the people issues," she said. "Trying to listen to somebody talk through a personal problem that didn't have anything to do with the physical work."

Being a shift foreman - a required duty on the way to becoming a metallurgist responsible for a steel product line - meant noticing when workers were distracted in a way that could interfere with the job.

"Sometimes people just need to know that you respect them enough to stop and listen to what it is they have to say," she said. "It has formed a lot of my management style."

Ms. Williams, now executive director of the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority, was drawn to study materials science and engineering, and to work at U.S. Steel because of her interest in the technical details of math and science - not the intricacies of human relations. She says, with honest wonder, "I was just captured by the use of polymers."

Yet in the crucible of the steel mills, she learned how listening can convey fairness and neutralize skepticism. As "the scrawny kid, the new chick" on the management track in a male-dominated, blue-collar work world, she faced plenty of skepticism.

"Right out the chute, being a woman, you are not supposed to be there. …

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