THEY are all accomplished women in their own rights, with poise, brains and beauty to match. But while different in their personalities, together the trio of Audrey Sewell, Doreen Prendergast and Dr Janine Dawkins are undoubtedly the Ministry of Transport, Works and Housing's leading ladies.
Like a triangle, they are connected through their portfolios, but their functions often lead them in different directions, even if at the end of the day they are reconnected to a central focus. Sewell, the most senior of the lot, sits at the top given her position as the ministry's permanent secretary, and then balancing her out are Prendergast, the acting chief technical director for housing, and Dr Dawkins, the chief technical director for transport and works.
"I have found that as women, we have been able to hold our own and over time, we are breaking the glass ceiling. Here I find that the men are very kind to us, not in a condescending way, because I think we are toe to toe with them," said Sewell who has had a long and illustrious career as a public servant. In fact, all the women have.
Seated in the office of the permanent secretary on a sunny afternoon last week, the women all described what it took for them to get to the top of their field, so much so that they are now charged with the responsibility of charting government policies and making technical decisions that determine how Jamaicans travel and receive shelter.
Sewell's journey began in the cool plains of Clarendon in the district of Lionel Town. It was in this small district that she first came to understand the concept of family, although her father was, for the most part, absent from her life and she was instead raised by a strong mother with the support of grandparents and other extended family.
"I was saying to somebody the other day that we were poor, but you did not recognise that you were poor, because of the strong family bond," she said.
This community bond was strengthened by the self-sufficiency of the small district. There was a courthouse, a police station, a tax office, a post office, a hospital, and most families worked at the Monymusk sugar factory.
"Coming from a rural community where housing is an issue, it really helps me to identify and understand the needs, particularly of the less fortunate in our society, that housing is a major problem. Where I am coming from, the sugar industry provided housing pretty much for its workers," she said.
"I can identify with some of the needs and it helps to shape my perspective on how we do things to respond to the needs of those who look to us for service."
But growing up, it had never crossed Sewell's mind that she would be rendering service in the manner she is today. Her idea of giving back was to become a teacher, a passion she harboured after being inspired by her favourite primary school teacher.
"I wanted either to be a teacher or a nurse. I did apply to nursing school, but then I recognised that teaching was really what I wanted to do, and so when I left high school, I worked for two years and then recognised that I was not pursuing my passion and applied to teachers' college and was accepted," she said.
What transpired after her studies at Shortwood Teachers' College was a fulfilling career as an educator, which took her into classrooms across the Corporate Area. Among the institutions she taught at were Pembroke Hall High School, Denham Town High, Ardenne High and at least two vocational training institutions. She eventually left the classroom for a brief stint at the Ministry of Justice to work at the Justice Training Institute, but it wasn't long before she was called to exercise her expertise in the education sector once again. However, this time, it wouldn't be as a classroom teacher, but instead as the permanent secretary in the education ministry.
After five years in that post, she received a courtesy call from the cabinet secretary who informed her of an impending transfer to the transport and works ministry to hold the fort for her predecessor who was taking a month's vacation leave.
"My colleague extended his vacation leave on more than one occasion and it ended up that I am still here. I am now here assigned as the permanent secretary. I have never gone back to my desk at the education ministry. I packed up and left and I told them that I would be off for a month, but I never went back and am still here, more than a year now, as the permanent secretary," she said.
Prendergast, too, is a trained teacher who, like Sewell, was raised in a rural district. She became a teacher at age 19 and taught at her alma mater St Mary's College, a Catholic school in Above Rocks, St Catherine. She then went on to pursue her first degree in geography, taught for a while, did another degree, and following this, went on to join the staff at the Ministry of Housing in 1995 as a researcher/statistician in the community services division. Two years later, she was granted a scholarship to do her master's in New Zealand and on her return, became the director of physical planning in the Ministry of Environment and Housing, then the senior director of housing, and now the acting chief technical director in the housing ministry.
"God has been really good to me, a poor, humble rural child, and he has made my crooked path straight, and I am grateful to be a servant of the people of Jamaica," she said.
Her work sees her giving management oversight to the housing arm of the ministry. It's a lot of work, but the permanent secretary feels she is handling it very well.
"When I first joined the ministry, I saw Doreen and I remember I had a one on one with her and I told her how impressed I was with her, how she carried herself, how she presented herself, and her grasp of the issues in her area," said Sewell.
Dr Dawkins' ascendancy to the top was not filled with as many twist and turns as her two colleagues. She joined the ministry in 1990, straight out of the University of West Indies, St Augustine campus, where she was trained as an engineer. Unlike the others, too, she is very much the urbanite who was born right under the clock in Kingston. Still, given her job, she knows every nook and cranny of Jamaica.
The Immaculate alumni began her career as a traffic engineer and then was a senior engineer before she went overseas in 1994 to do her master's and her PhD in transportation engineering. On her return to Jamaica in 1998, she became chief engineer in the transport ministry where she was instrumental in making several changes to the nation's roadways.
"I think that was the most public part of my career — when I started orchestrating changes to the traffic system, putting in 'one ways' and 'no right turns' and barriers in the road. I got a lot of bashing as being this crazy lady who came from foreign and didn't understand anything about Jamaica," she said. The thought elicited a chuckle from her and before long her colleagues were joining in the merriment.
Their life is not all about work, these women will be quick to tell you, because family supersedes everything. They are all married, with Prendergast being the mother of three daughters; Dr Dawkins the mother of one; and Sewell having two grown sons. Time is also allotted for their own personal relaxation. Dr Dawkins loves gardening and is an active member of the horticultural society; Prendergast is a fitness enthusiasts who loves going to church; and Sewell loves a good lyme with her girlfriends on a Saturday night, worship services, and cooking up a storm in between. During the week, she finds contentment by tuning in to her favourite television programme.
"It's funny enough, but I like cartoons. I don't sit and watch the hard movies; some of them are just too much for me. After a hard day at work you go home and you are stressed, you want something ... where you can just relax," she said.