In celebration of Women's History Month, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District is highlighting several of the many women whose talent, expertise and hard work support our communities and our nation. Today we had a conversation with Jessa Farmer, Pittsburgh District's Geotechnical and Water Resources Branch Chief about her experiences and what Women's History Month means to her.
Tell us a little about what you do.
“I’m the Geotechnical & Water Resources Branch Chief, where I oversee the sections Geotech, geospatial, dam and levee safety, and water resources sections. I’m a geotechnical engineering by training and experience but have been in management for seven years.”
What does Women’s History Month mean for you?
“To me, Women's History Month is not just an opportunity to learn about people who have advocated for women's rights and the amazing achievements of other women or other important issues, but what I love about women. We talk to each other. We share stories and experiences, which help us understand what everyone else is going through. We know we're not alone. It helps us understand other people's struggles and their different points of view. It helps us be stronger and overcome the big issues and challenges women face. For instance, together, we can address specific challenges like the pandemic's impact on women and the responsibilities or roles we have, or more prominent topics like women's rights or inequality through history. It wasn't so long ago that my grandmother and great-grandmother were marching and contributing to suffragette issues.
“I'm fortunate to grow up when I did and have strong female role models, which some women don’t have. It made it so much easier for me to feel confident and comfortable with being a strong woman and going where I want to in my career and feeling comfortable about who I am.”
Who are some of your role models?
“I feel like a lot of women would say their mom or their grandmother or a family member, but it’s true for me. I have a strong-minded mother and both my grandmothers are very independent women. They're married, they're happy, but they both got to work. They both have their opinions and do certain things that mothers in the ‘50s didn't usually get to do. They made family decisions that might have been considered a male's role. My mom has a strong opinion and isn’t afraid to talk to certain people or ask questions. Just having those family members show me as I grew up was important. I was very lucky to have family members like that raise me.”
Do you think it's easier for you to teach your daughters those lessons than it was for your mom to teach?
“No, only because my mom is that strong of a woman. [She laughs] I think it's easier for me because there are more examples of women like her for me to show my daughters, then they can make their own choices.”
Earlier you mentioned what the pandemic has done to and for women. This year, the theme for Women's History Month is “Providing Healing, Providing Hope.” Can you talk about how you think the pandemic impacted the different roles women are expected to play?
“The pandemic has changed the world. You hear about people leaving the workforce and that it's more women than men. It's important that women are represented in many different fields in the workforce, so I hope is it's because they want to leave, not that they need to go.
“Historically, part of women's roles has been to take care of their families and their children. I worry that a lot of women have this constant worry to keep their families safe, like ‘do we have masks? Enough hand sanitizer? Can we go here? What are the rules? What am I going to do with kids?’ Then there’s the stress for some women to try to work, make sure the kids develop and grow in a way that accounts for the new changes and limitations from the last two years. In most cases, I feel like it’s still a woman's responsibility to make sure the kids are taken care of when daycares close or schools are remote. It's difficult.”
Do you think that's because of the stereotypical gender role of the woman as the caregiver?
“In some cases, yes, and some women just like to take on that role. Maybe it’s somewhat ingrained that taking care of people is what we’re supposed to do, but that’s part of who some of us want to be. I think that's a trait a lot of women carry. We're willing to step up, so it's probably a bit of both.”
You mentioned that women bear a lot of this responsibility, however you also said women feel they just need to step up and do that. Do you think that the pandemic provided an opportunity for women who don't naturally subscribe to that gender role of being a caregiver [for children or the elderly] to reevaluate that role?
“I know a lot of women who have chosen not to have kids or haven't had kids for various reasons. I haven't heard of any of them reconsidering if they want kids or realigning with the roles of the ‘gender-by-gender, women take care of kids’ idea, but it’s hard to figure out. Like, for me, I was 25 when I realized I didn't have to have kids. I only learned that because I was living with an older couple who chose not to have kids, but it had never dawned on me that I had that option. I have two daughters now, but that’s because I made the choice to and not because I felt like I had to.
Whether it's taking care of elderly parents, our co-workers or friends, or just checking in on each other, I see a lot of women have taken on that role during the pandemic whether they were in that role before or not. I think everyone cares about everyone, but I feel like women tend to ask and are upfront about, ‘hey, how are you doing?’ Maybe that's a stereotype, but it's also something I've observed. I think more women tend to ask how others are doing and want to hear how others are feeling, so the pandemic has opened up everyone to do it more.”
What is something about equality or women’s history that we don’t talk about enough?
“I think something that gets missed is that while everyone can join and are encouraged to speak up, some women are in situations where they can't. So what do we do, and how do we help those women that can't? Some of the basic rights are still missing for others. Equality is expanding and growing, but I think we need to remember the ones who don’t see it.”
Do you do anything to celebrate Women’s History Month?
“It’s a cliche, but I celebrate Women's History Month all the time! [She laughs] I have two daughters who I am constantly teaching to be strong, comfortable, and confident women. I want them to feel that they can do whatever they want, play whatever they want and feel like they have a voice. I want my daughters to feel supported and know how to face adversity. Every day, all the time – I want to help them grow into wonderful women.”
Who are some of the women in history that inspire you?
“Clara Barton, Rosa Parks, Abigail Adams, Harriet Tubman – too many to name. Any woman that stands up and speaks out.”
Any closing thoughts?
“One thing I want for all women is to make sure they are confident – that they feel supported and that they're comfortable with who they are and what they want to do, but I also hope people get invested and learn about women in history. There’s so much about what we've done, where we've come from and how we've worked to be where we are now. So, I hope people take the time to learn about us, gain some insight and, hopefully, grow themselves.”