International Women’s Day is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women, and this year it was celebrated on March 8. Because of the work involved, both the rail and terminal industries as a whole have been made up of a largely male workforce, but as thoughts on roles change, more and more women have been making a big impact in both areas. 

Watco Companies is unique in the industry because there was woman involved in the company from day one. Kaye Lynne Webb signed her name on the bank papers to purchase Watco’s first locomotive and has been an inspirational role model for women ever since. In 2018, the Pittsburg (KS) Area Chamber of Commerce created an award called the Kaye Lynne Webb Influential Woman in Business Award. The award is presented each year to a woman who has followed Kaye Lynne’s example and made an impact on the Crawford County workforce. 

Kaye Lynne set the bar high, but there are several women at Watco that have done the same in their areas of expertise within the company. Shontá Moore is an excellent example of one of those individuals. Shontá serves as Watco’s Corporate Air Environmental Manager and although she’s held the role for just a couple of years, she’s made a tremendous difference in that time period. Shontá said the environmental field is still largely male dominated and approximately 98 percent of the people that she deals with are men.

“It’s crazy how few women are in the field,” said Shontá. “As a woman, you’re constantly having to prove yourself to the guys who have been in the industry for years and years. However, once you earn their trust and respect, the barrier disappears and they see you as an equal.”

Shontá wasn’t always interested in the environmental sector. It was when she took a job with the State of Texas that her interest in the environmental field was piqued. The Louisiana native was first interested in becoming a doctor and had many of the prerequisites under her belt when she decided to switch her major. She ultimately graduated from Texas Southern University with a bachelor’s degree in biology, a master’s in environmental toxicology, and a master’s in urban planning and environmental policy.

She said her start in the medical area has helped her in her current role as she has a better understanding of health issues involved with the environmental toxins. She also can relate better to the issues addressed by the different activists and urban organizations. 

Some of the many duties that Shontá performs includes reviewing permits and contracts regarding what is required by federal agencies, reacting to any issues that arise, and safely, effectively, and efficiently working to ensure all locations, team members, and communities are not put in harms way. 

“It’s not just about the PPE that we are required to wear,” said Shontá,”It’s looking at what’s outside of the normal, ensuring that we’re not putting anything out in the air that is harmful to our neighbors and our team.”

Shontá said that there are some advantages to being a woman in the industry, “A lot of the guys will embrace me as sort of a little sister or a daughter and take me under their wings and teach me things that I need to know, whether it’s about specific locations and what they do or environmental topics. It helps to build trust and respect. The ability to handle 8,000 roles at once without dropping the ball is also an asset, along with my focus on always being accessible and providing responses as quickly as I can.”

Dealing with the many personalities in her work life can only help Shontá with raising her 16 year-old son Deveon. 

Watco’s Corporate Air Environmental Manager Shontá Moore and her son Deveon.

“He’s curious about what I do and the places I go to. He doesn’t always like that I travel, but he understands why I do and together we are learning about a lot of different areas of the country.”

Shontá’s advice to other women entering the industry; “Stick to your guns, don’t back down or be intimidated. Mean it, own it, and move forward.”

Commercial Manager Laura Schmidt is another example of a woman who is paving the way for other women in her field. She joined the BNSF in 1997 and was the only female in her class at conductor school. When she went to engineering school a year later, she was one of only two females in the class of 40. 

“I was one of three women at my location, which was a way higher percentage than most locations had,” said Laura. “I think it was tough starting out, but things were different then and regardless whether you were male or female, you had to go through sort of an initiation phase. The heads were just mean to everyone back then, they did stuff they could never get away with now,” she said with a laugh.

Laura got her start when she was looking for a way to get her college degree without having to take on a lot of debt. Her brother, brother-in-law, and uncle all encouraged her to get into the field. 

“It gets into your blood, that’s why I keep doing it,” said Laura. “I really liked being a conductor because I got to build relationships with my Customers.”

Laura worked for the BNSF and then joined the team in Wichita on the Kansas and Oklahoma Railroad as a conductor/engineer then was promoted to assistant general manager. She then moved to the commercial side of the business and took a position as commercial manager for Watco Transportation Services (WTS) and Watco Terminal and Port Services (WTPS). 

Watco’s Commercial Manager Laura Schmidt with her daughter Ali.

She said the ratio of male to females in the commercial marketing area is more balanced, but there are still more men on the operations side.

“But, I would bet if you look at the number of applicants, that ratio is the same. I’m sure there are a lot more men applying for those positions than there are women.” 

She said women on the operations side feel like there’s more of a need to prove themselves just due to the physical nature of the job. She said a lot of the pressure is internal, more us pushing ourselves vs. what others actually expect.

 “As a woman, you don’t want anyone to think that you can’t do the same work as the guys do, so I think you work harder just to prove you can.” 

“You also have to check your emotions at the door, you can’t wear them on your sleeve, but that’s the same for both men and women, it’s always been a tougher industry.”

What advice would Laura offer other women entering the field?

“Know what you don’t know. Ask questions. Again, that’s advice for everyone, especially in operations. If I mess up a contract, there’s an opportunity to go back and fix that, but on the ops side, an error can kill you, so you need to be sure of what you’re doing at all times. Don’t ever be afraid to ask questions and keep asking them until you fully understand what you need to do.”

The operations side of the business is not the only one that few women frequent. If you look at the board meetings of the American Association of Railroads (AAR), most often the only woman with a board seat is Watco’s Laura McNichol, sitting amongst the Chairmen and CEO’s of the Class I railroads.

Laura serves as Watco’s senior vice president of government and industry relations and spends much of her time in the nation’s capital promoting the interests of rail, waterway, and terminal industries. 

Laura began her visits to “the Hill” more than 21 years ago advocating for the National Association of Conservation Districts, where she built support for natural resources conservation programs for farmers and ranchers.

“I’ve worked for two our country’s oldest industries, agriculture and railroading, both of which tend to be male dominated so I’m used to being the only woman in the room,” said Laura.

“That can be an asset, I try to use humor and make people in the room laugh to help build a connection.”

Another way she makes a connection is through her golf game. 

“It’s seriously one of the ways I have made contacts with men who are leaders in the industries I need to connect with. I worked hard to become a decent player and take my game seriously. Golfing is one place where I think women need to be serious and develop a good reputation and that trust can parlay into meeting rooms and business deals.”

Watco’s Senior Vice President of Government Affairs and Industry Relations Laura McNichol, has some fun posing with one of her birds. 

Laura agrees with Shontá in that men will sometimes take you in as a sister, which Laura says she enjoys.

“I love that I’ll get a call from someone on our team and they say ‘Sissy, I need some help.’ That feeling of family is incredible and makes me feel like part of something special.”

Laura said that she’s only had positive experiences as a woman in the industries that she’s been involved in and that she has never felt that her gender has held her back. If anything, it helps develop an “edge’ that helps in all types of situations, regardless if it’s a room full of men or women.

These are just three of the many women who are making a difference every day in the Watco world. One common thread among the many stories of the women at Watco is that success is something that they’ve worked hard at to achieve. Whether it’s in a classroom, a boardroom, on a track, or a dock, success goes hand in hand with challenges, and the ability to learn and grow from those experiences is what has put them where they are today.