In this installment in our Women in Public Safety series in honor of Women's History Month celebrated in March, MCP Insights chats with Christy Williams, director of NCT9-1-1 in Arlington, Texas, and a past president of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA). Williams shares her insights regarding the challenges she faced as a woman over her career in a male-dominated industry, and how she overcame them on her rise to leadership positions at the local, state and national levels.
Insights: What was the environment like when you started your career?
Williams: I wasn’t taken seriously, and earning credibility was a struggle. Women shouldn’t expect credibility automatically because of their gender, but they also shouldn’t have to deal with bias either. While the bias I experienced largely was because I was a woman, that wasn’t the only factor.
Insights: How so?
Williams: It also had a lot to do with the fact that I was young, and there were cultural factors. This was the South and there were a lot of “good ol’ boys.” I heard a lot of “sweetie, darling and honey,” and it took me a while to realize that those terms weren’t always insults, but rather a reflection of their way of life. I had to thicken my skin and understand that how they were addressing me wasn’t necessarily a problem—it all depends on intent. Eventually I became a good judge of whether the attention I was receiving was driven by sincerity or malice. Unfortunately, there were people who didn’t think I deserved a seat at the table because I am a woman. It was frustrating.
Insights: How did you combat such sentiments?
Williams: I studied and did a lot of research. When I spoke, I wanted the naysayers to think that I knew what I was talking about—and that it didn’t matter whether I was a man or a woman. I never let not being taken seriously because I was a woman get me down—instead, I became determined to prove that not only could I do the job, but that I could do it well. Then I started piling up successes, and that’s what gave the credibility I sought.
Insights: What were some of those successes?
Williams: I benefitted from the fact that when I started, 911 was in a very nascent stage in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. That gave me an opportunity—leveraging my mass communications/marketing degree and my psychology minor—to come up with things that never had been done before because 911 was so new.
Insights: What were some of those things?
Williams: We created several public-education campaigns to get the word out about 9-1-1, which believe it or not was encountering some resistance in the more rural areas. I convinced fast-food restaurants to use tray liners that had 9-1-1 messaging, and grocery stores to use shopping bags printed with similar messages. And I went to as many festivals and town meetings as I could to get the message out. My presentations were both educational and motivational—there’s that psychology minor again—which helped people see things in a different light.
Insights: Did all of this improve your stature?
Williams: Absolutely. My ability to meet these challenges head on gave me the confidence and credibility at the local level, and eventually that extended to the state and national levels.
Insights: Do the old biases and stereotypes still exist?
Williams: Things definitely have changed for the better, and I think today’s public safety industry encourages women not only to get involved, but also to take leadership roles. But I still see some things that tells me that we’re not completely there yet, so don’t get too comfortable.
Insights: What advice would you give women about working in public safety?
Williams: If you can’t be the smartest person in the room, than at least be the best-informed. I believe strongly that there are no subject-matter experts these days in public safety, because things are evolving too quickly. So, we need to understand that we always and forevermore have to be students, and as long as we continue to research and learn from each other, we will be in a position to help lead and guide our industry. We also have to be careful about our messages and delivery of them. Women need to guard against being perceived as clawing their way to the top as part of some feminine agenda. Rather, women should want to be perceived as the sincere public servants that they are, because this industry is all about serving others.
Insights: Anything else?
Williams: Yes—never give up and use every tool in your toolbelt to accomplish your goals. Sometime in the last few years I decided that telecommunicators need much better location information. I felt so strongly about this, believed that there was a better way to do location and, most importantly, believed that doing so would save more lives, that I pressed on. A lot of that was driven by the death of Kyle Plush a couple of years ago—Kyle had become pinned by the middle seat in his family’s minivan and eventually was asphyxiated. Police officers couldn’t locate him even though they were cruising the parking lot looking for him. That was a senseless death, and I sensed that there was technology out there somewhere to keep something like that from happening again. I channeled the emotion I felt into passion, and then resolve. Today, 90 percent of 911 centers are receiving advanced location information from RapidSOS’s clearinghouse and that warms my heart.