Wonder Women: These Savvy Sisters Are Facing Formidable Challenges in Male-Dominated Professions - and Winning

By White, Paula M. | Black Enterprise, April 1997 | Go to article overview

Wonder Women: These Savvy Sisters Are Facing Formidable Challenges in Male-Dominated Professions - and Winning


White, Paula M., Black Enterprise


These savvy sisters are facing formidable challenges in male-dominated professions--and winning.

It was a Sunday afternoon last winter and snow was falling steadily as Shirley DeLibero cooked a pot roast dinner and looked warily outside her window. New Jersey had already been battered by a series of storms so she knew the drill by heart. The weather forecaster had barely gotten out the words "winter storm watch" before DeLibero, executive director of New Jersey Transit, grabbed her half-done dinner and was out the door.

She didn't come home for three days. Holed up in her downtown Newark office, DeLibero and her staff rerouted trains and briefed maintenance personnel and department heads, tirelessly working to keep the trains running in the midst of a paralyzing storm. Their diligence paid off: While some 30 inches of snow descended on New York, Connecticut and New Jersey, NJ Transit was the only passenger rail transportation system in the area that didn't dose down. For DeLibero, this emergency was not unique: as the head of the third largest transit system in the country, she often finds her job making unannounced intrusions on her personal life.

DeLibero is just one of a growing number of African American women who now find themselves thrust into management roles in male-dominated fields. They have excelled by challenging tradition, climbing the professional ladder in public service, government and technology, among other professions once closed to women.

BLACK ENTERPRISE profiles three women in leadership roles, including DeLibero. Atlanta police chief Beverly Harvard controls law and order in one of the more dynamic cities in the country, while Gloria Jeff, associate administrator for policy at the Federal Highway Administration, strategizes highway placement all across the country.

These three women share a number of common traits beyond race and gender: aggressiveness, creativity and confidence. And all have leadership abilities that have helped them overcome obstacles of both race and sex to become leaders in their respective fields.

ON THE EXPRESS TRACK

DeLibero got her start in transit in 1978, after spending 19 years working in the electronics industry. Her first job in transit was as production manager for the reconstruction of trolley cars for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority in Boston. From Boston to Washington, D.C., to Dallas, DeLibero spent the next 12 years learning all sides of the transit business. By the time she was offered the helm in New Jersey in 1990, she had gained experience managing bus and light- and heavy-rail transit systems. At the time she accepted the job, she became the highest ranking African American woman in public transportation.

She had her work cut out for her, inheriting a system plagued by annual fare hikes, frequently late trains and poor maintenance. But when DeLibero took the post, she pushed through several long-stalled projects, like the implementation of several suburban train lines. She also addressed specific customer complaints, such as service delays, which were caused, in part, by increased maintenance. As a result, train and bus ridership increased by more than 14%, customer complaints went down 40% and the system's overall favorable ratings rose 18% from September 1990 through April 1995.

DeLibero has also been cost-conscious. Fares haven't increased since she came on board despite budget cuts, largely because creative financing techniques brought money into the department. For example, cross-border leasing, the renting of utilities and vehicles to overseas companies that operate in the U.S., has netted some $51 million for NJ Transit over the past five years. Under her watch, the department also implemented the nation's first interactive bus simulator to expose trainees to the rigors of operating a transit vehicle in a real-life environment. The system has helped save thousands in training costs and could ultimately generate additional revenue as DeLibero contracts the bus simulator out to other transit agencies. …

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