Inside Seven
Current Issue: September 2014
Sonya Harris (left) and Cathlene Lewis from Maintenance are part of a supportive group of women helping to pave the way for others.

by  Judy Gish
Issue Date: 03/2008

Caltrans recognizes its women in Maintenance (and everywhere else)

Once upon a time, the image of a highway worker was that of a strong, competent…man. Today, strength and competence are still part of the image but now your friendly neighborhood Caltrans maintenance worker just might be a woman.

Yes, their numbers are still small but they’re slowly growing and there is at least one in District 7 who is second-generation. In honor of Women’s History Month, here are a few of their stories:

Barbara Cisneros has been working for Caltrans since 1992, when her previous agency, the California Conservation Corps (CCC), started downsizing. She began work on a landscape crew and from there went to highway maintenance, where she was promoted to supervisor working in West Region, her current position.

She says the most difficult part of her job now is planning and scheduling for the myriad tasks her crew performs. “My typical day is driving into work and figuring out who does what,” she says. Because there is a lot of construction in her area, “there’s always something going on.”

Coming up through the ranks, “everyone was really nice to me,” she says. Which is not to say that she was exactly made to feel like an equal. “They didn't tell me, but their body language sure did.” For example, she might make a suggestion only to have the crew look at the leadworker for approval. Cisneros takes that in stride. “You’ll always get your challenges where someone will question why you’re doing things a certain way.”

Overall, there’s a lot of affection expressed. Cisneros’ crew calls her “Mom” and she calls them her kids. She is appreciative of all the camaraderie that exists in the yard. “What I really like about my job is training—giving them that opportunity and then watching them go with it. Or when they want to go into your office at the end of the day and just chat with you.”

Her best advice for others who want to succeed in this field? Don’t play the woman card and never take safety for granted. “It’s not for everybody,” she says, “but if you’re ever given the opportunity, make the most of it.”

Cathlene “Cathy” Lewis, Caltrans Electrician II, also started in 1992, as a maintenance worker I. Within six months, she promoted to equipment operator (she tied for highest score in the State on the test). She has operated a front-end loader, a bob-cat grader, a back hoe, and a tanker truck to name a few pieces of equipment. Wanting to be a bridge painter, she worked for three years on the Vincent Thomas Bridge maintenance crew and then became a structural steel painter.  

“I love to learn new things and new trades, which benefits me and my employer,” she says, “so I’ll be the first to volunteer.”

Her next move, in 2005, was to Electrical on a Training and Development assignment out of the Westdale yard in West Los Angeles. Lewis says she really enjoys this work and has a “very helpful crew with a wealth of knowledge.” She says she is also lucky because the job involves heavy equipment “so I still get to play.”

Lewis’s advice for other women in non-traditional work is to take as many tests as possible and to take chances. Being flexible helps but sometimes it is necessary to take a stand. “I can dish it out as well as they (men) can. Everybody I’ve worked with knows I can hold my own.”

Sonya Harris followed her mother’s footsteps into Maintenance some 18 years ago. She began as a service assistant, then became a worker I, then an equipment operator, moved up to leadworker and is now a supervisor in West Region.  Was it tough out there? “I was going to quit my second week on the job but my leadworker talked me out of it,” she says.

Good thing. Harris does not believe she has had any problems specifically related to being a woman, unlike her mother, for whom being a female in a job traditionally held by males was more difficult. When the junior Harris started “I heard horror stories from other women” but she thinks she was fortunate and it helped that Jim Fowler was her supervisor, she says.

When the soft-spoken Harris needs to control her crew, she has to turn up the volume, she says. “And then they go, ‘She’s crazy’.” But they listen.

Pam Dennis, who started with Caltrans in 1983 on a spray crew, says despite being the only woman on the crew (a percentage shared by all the women interviewed), there were no issues. Having grown up with five brothers, “Nothing they would say could surprise me,” she says.

Dennis’s career followed a path from worker to leadworker to maintenance supervisor to Caltrans area supervisor. Now she’s a contract supervisor, which is more of an office job. In terms of women in Maintenance, Dennis believes conditions are better than they used to be and that’s because of the women who came before and paved (sometimes literally) the way. “But I think it’s going to take a whole lot more for the men here to adapt to the fact that we are here and we are capable,” she says.

Her advice to other women is similar to the others: “Be diligent, study, test and set your goals,” she says, adding that they should be aware that it’s a tough, very physical job. “Make sure you carry yourself in a manner that demands respect.” Dennis is planning to take the manager’s test, even though she doesn’t see any openings coming up for a while in the District. “It’s a tougher position than what we do,” she says, “but I really think I could handle it.”

For Cynthia Williams, Caltrans Maintenance work really is the family business, employing her father, brother and two sons. When she started in 1979, in landscape, “I was scared to death,” she says. A close friend of the family had been killed on the job. She wanted to be a marshal with the Sheriff’s office but decided that was even more dangerous. “I finally decided I would rather dodge cars than bullets.” In 1992, she made supervisor and in 1999, area superintendent. Daniels says her success was hard won. “But even after all the blood, sweat and tears, it’s family,” she says. “Out here there’s a camaraderie that tears down all kinds of barriers.

And there’s no such thing as a typical day in the field. She has found dead bodies, money, you name it. “This is not scripted,” she says. “Every day is a different day with different challenges.” It’s also a new chance for something to happen, so you always have to be alert, she says. “I want these people to go home the same way they came in.”

Asked about encountering attitude from fellow workers, Williams replied that she dealt with it by fighting back. “I was not afraid to go to management,” she said. It also helped that she and Pam Dennis were pals and looked out for each other, helping one another with some of those tears.  “I thank God for the women who paved the way for me and hope I cut a path for other women to go even farther than I did.”

As for her own ambitions, Williams likes it where she is. “I’d rather be around these people than get too far up in management,” she says.

If there is a theme that emerges among all these women’s stories, it is one of resilience, determination, and close relationships with co-workers. It’s the female way, and it gets the job done. Caltrans salutes these women and all the others who make up the Department’s workforce and contribute to its success.





Barbara Cisneros from West Region is called mom by her crew. Cynthia Williams at work in the family business. Pam Dennis from South Region grew up with five brothers and has heard it all.