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SDOT Women Paving the Way | Meet Karen Sweeney

Today, March 8, we stand with people across the world to celebrate International Women’s Day.

International Women’s Day is a day defined by the United Nations as a time to reflect on progress made, to call for change, and to celebrate acts of courage and determination by ordinary women who have played an extraordinary role in the history of their countries and communities. 

A few of the many, many women who are paving the way at SDOT.

SDOT is brimming with women who play an extraordinary role in shaping our city and community, and in so doing, make their own mark on history.

This month, we’re sharing stories of some of SDOT’s talented, brave, strong, and determined employees who are making our city safer, opening paths for other women (cis, trans, and gender expansive people) in the workforce, and fighting for a more equitable city. These women are building bridges and paving the way – both literally and for others in the workforce.

International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month honors those who identify as female, and we acknowledge that our communal understanding of gender is evolving.  

We recognize that gender is deeply personal, and each person has a unique experience in the world that should be honored. Particularly, we recognize the disproportionate toll that violence has on transgender women and stand in solidarity with all SDOT employees regardless of their gender identity. 

“In the Office” looks a little different these days for Karen. Here she is working at her home office.

Meet Karen Sweeney  

Karen is our Street Maintenance Manager, overseeing a team of nearly 50 people. She joined SDOT 32 years ago as a general laborer and has worked just about every job the street maintenance division. 

The street maintenance team are the people who take care of (or maintain) our streets and sidewalks. From filling potholes (they filled nearly 15,000 potholes last year!), to clearing branches after a windstorm, cleaning graffiti, driving the street sweepers, cleaning and flushing alleys and streets on night shift, mowing vegetation, stairway cleaning and installing sidewalk shims – the street maintenance team is busy! 

When a winter storm hits, they pivot from their typical daily duties, and they’re some of the people driving snow plows and shoveling curb ramps. Karen was one of the main people who orchestrated our snow response last month!  

It takes an organized, compassionate, strong, and quick-thinking person to manage the ins and outs of our street maintenance program, and we’re grateful to have Karen, with her three decades of experience, leading this team. 

Outside of her work at SDOT, Karen and her husband enjoy buying and fixing up houses. And, like many of us, she is longing for the days that she can enjoy gatherings and meals with family and friends. 

We talked to Karen about her role at SDOT, her experience as a woman in a traditionally male-dominated, her inspiration, and more. 


Karen (second from the Right) with street maintenance team members from a few years back.

What do you love about your job at SDOT? 

One thing I love about my job is the variety of projects I get to work on. I have a mix of office work and field work and every day is different. My days could be filled helping crews respond to landslides, preparing the logistics for a snowstorm response, or the management of filling potholes, dealing with equipment issues or meeting with a resident to resolve questions or issues they may have. I enjoy the variety and I feel like I’m making a difference in the city. As a crew chief, supervisor, or manager, it is important to be a good steward of taxpayer dollars and ensure that the people of our city are receiving reasonable services they request.  

How do you think identifying as a woman has impacted your career? 

I’ve always been driven towards nontraditional women’s work. In the 1970’s, the opportunities for females to work in nontraditional roles were there.  As I entered the workforce, there were a whole new range of career paths to choose from.  Before SDOT, I worked in a steel mill as a laborer. And, well, not all of the guys I was working with wanted the women there. I’ve definitely been on the end of heated discussions of “you’re taking a man’s job”.  

As a female working in physical labor jobs, I’ve just had to work hard.  And that was fine, because I’m not afraid of hard work. 

Can you tell me about a defining moment in your professional journey or career? 

There have been many! Any time I’ve changed to a new position – and I’ve had a lot of positions over the past 32 years at SDOT – I was challenged and grew from each position I had.  

Probably the most defining moment was becoming a Crew Chief. Crew Chiefs manage the day-to-day work of their crews, they pre-inspect job sites, assign crews to perform work, resolve safety and equipment issues,  review time sheets, attend safety meetings, and ensure job sites are set up safely. They also perform coaching and counseling with their crews, participate in hiring processes, and deal with a variety of ever-changing workplace situations and requests. 

I applied to be a Crew Chief five times before landing the job. It was my first job that took me out of the field and put me into the office scene, managing work and people, and it propelled me to a different level.  

What is the best career advice you’ve ever received?  

I have two pieces of advice that I received and continue to share with others.  

  • Just keep advancing your career. If you apply for a job and you’re not the one selected for the job, keep working hard and don’t be afraid to reapply again. You need to let people understand what you’re interested in and where you want to go. Don’t be discouraged. Keep on trying; your time will come.  
  • Share information and  knowledge with your team, so people coming up behind you can learn from what you know.  

Who is a woman you admire professionally or personally, and why?  

One female I admire is Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg for all the work she’s done for gender equality. She was tiny in stature and mighty in spirit. She was amazing – to be in law school in the 1950’s as one of a few females in a huge class of males, I admire her and feel that I definitely benefitted from her work on gender equality.  

Throughout this month we will be sharing stories of other women at SDOT who inspire us.

In the meantime, take a look at other women we highlighted on the blog throughout last year: Margo DawesJeanne Clark, & Sonia Palmer.