ATLANTIC CITY — Rhonda Lowery was stopped at a red light in the resort one day when she heard a frantic beeping.
Looking around, she saw one of the women she worked with in the county’s Teen Parent program, waving and trying to get her attention.
“She was so happy because she had her first car,” Lowery said, chuckling, adding she was there to help the woman get her first apartment and her high school equivalency. “It wasn’t like it happened over a six-month period. This was years later, but she still remembered me and recognized me and she wanted me to see that she was doing OK.”
Lowery, executive director of the Atlantic County Workforce Development Board and director of the Office of Workforce Development, is one of 884 women who work in Atlantic County government. Among county governments in the state, Atlantic ranks as one of the highest employers of women, with 52 percent of its workforce made up of women, and many women in leadership roles.
By comparison, Cumberland County’s workforce is 46 percent women. Ocean County’s is 35 percent women. Cape May County did not respond to a request for the female makeup of its workforce. Warren County was the only county that responded with a higher percentage of women workers than Atlantic County, at 53 percent.
County Executive Dennis Levinson said there are false accusations and misinformation about the women who work in county government after a lawsuit, filed in January by two former and one current employee of the Prosecutor’s Office, named the county, the Prosecutor’s Office and high-ranking officials from both organizations, alleging gender discrimination, retaliation and other illegal behavior.
“Atlantic County has long practiced promoting from within and placing the most qualified individuals in leadership positions,” Levinson said. “Our county workforce includes a majority of women, which is reflected in our management team.”
Michelle Douglass and Phillip Burnham, attorneys for the women who filed the suit — Diane Ruberton, Heather McManus and Donna Fetzer — said county officials “refuse to address the elephant in the room: Women who work in and for the county do not earn the same salary as their male counterparts.”
The attorneys cite a 2015 report from Stockton University that concludes that women in Atlantic County earn 28 percent less than men who work in similar positions performing similar duties.
However, Lowery, along with three other women with a long tenure with the county government, said their gender has never negatively impacted their upward momentum within the county.
Lowery started out as an eligibility worker, helping to determine whether a resident was qualified for public assistance. Then she transitioned to other roles working one on one with county residents, such as the Teen Parent program that ran in the early ‘90s.
“You meet a lot of different types of people,” she said. “You meet some people who only needed a little bit of encouragement and direction. A little bit of a plan and they’re off and running, doing well, a job on their own, and then you meet some that need a lot more work to get them to that point.”
Diana Rutala serves as deputy county administrator. Working in government, she said, was something she was interested in from college, when she was a political science major.
After interning with the county in the early 1980s, Rutala has been full-time there since 1985.
“The good thing about the county, I’ve always found, is that I was never in one place a whole long time. There’s a lot of opportunity if you’re interested, and you can move around,” she said, explaining she’s worked in budgeting and purchasing, then planning and engineering.
“I like figuring out how to get the things done that need to get done in the most cost-effective way,” Rutala said. “I’ve never thought of it as being a woman. I’ve thought of it as being me in my role, and I think I’ve made positive change.”
Bonnie Lindaw, county treasurer and chief financial officer, said she was initially looking for a permanent, full-time job after going to college for business when she applied for an opening in county government and started working her way up.
“Over the years, it’s a position that’s been held by men and women,” Lindaw said of her job. “I feel as though I’ve had great opportunities. Personally, I believe that if you’re qualified for a position and you’re the right person, whether you’re male or female, then that’s the position you should have.”
In her role, Lindaw said she “keeps an eye on expenditures” by working to maintain low debt ratio, rebuild surplus and maintain bond ratings. She’s also worked to implement new financial software throughout the county.
Patricia Diamond, head of the county’s Human Services Department and public health officer, oversees close to 400 people in the four divisions within the department — Public Health, Meadowview Nursing Home and Rehabilitation Center in Northfield, the Office of Support Services and the Division of Intergenerational Services.
Diamond, who has a background in nursing, said government can be very interesting, and she’s always wanted to “provide services in the best fashion we can to the most vulnerable populations.”
Diamond, like Rutala and Lindaw, said the county has never made her feel any different because she is a woman.
“I didn’t really notice a distinction,” she said. “I’ve always thought that the county, if you were good and you were enthusiastic and had a good work ethic, that you would be evaluated to be promoted.”
She said it’s more about being qualified than gender when it comes to working in county government.
“Whether my name was Patrick or Patricia, I don’t think it would matter,” Diamond said. “And if you don’t make a great decision, it doesn’t matter if you’re male or female — you’re going to hear about it.”