Conn College's newest facilities director a woman in a sea of men

Trina Learned, director of facilities management and campus planning at Connecticut College, shown in front of a water distribution system for steam boilers in the Ulysses B. Hammond Power House on the Connecticut College campus in New London on Wednesday, March 8, 2017. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

Every March 8, as International Women’s Day rolls around, names such as Ida B. Wells, Sally Ride and Frida Kahlo pop back into the mainstream. Teachers include them in curricula, nonprofits mention them during events and, this year, women staying home from work nationwide do so in their honor.

But one need not look to history to find inspirational women breaking boundaries.

In New London, for example, one such trailblazer just signed on as a chief facilities officer at Connecticut College — a position in which men outnumber women nine to one, according to a College and University Professional Association for Human Resources report.

It’s the third time 62-year-old Trina Learned, the college’s newest director of facilities management and campus planning, has been named director of facilities at an educational campus in the past almost 10 years.

Each time, she was the first woman to hold the position.

“I love it,” Learned said, reflecting on how she came to be where she is. “And now that I’ve done this at two other institutions, I feel I’ve come to Conn College fully formed in this profession. It’s a terrific feeling.”

Learned didn’t expect to get into facilities management when she attended Williams College in the 1970s and came away with a bachelor’s degree in art history and music.

Her first memorable jobs didn’t stray far from the field: She worked in the administrative side of things at Yale University’s History of Art Department for a time, then ended up a business manager at one of Yale’s art museums.

Before she knew it, her expertise in donor-funded budgets landed her at Brown University, where she coordinated closely with a private facilities management company contracted by the university.

When she was ready to leave Brown, she signed on with that same company and learned the ins and outs of facilities management. When that company was sold, she started her own company and provided management planning and other services to academic, cultural and municipal institutions.

Along the way, she battled for respect in the male-dominated realm.

“Back when I had the business, my partner was a male who was six-four, brawny and 15 years younger,” Learned recalled. “If we walked into the same room, people always assumed he was in charge.”

At 5 feet 1 inch tall, Learned acknowledged some of her partner's command of a room might’ve been purely physical. But it’s a mindset she has noticed more times than she can count, especially when dealing with construction issues or mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems.

“There is a presumption that I probably don’t know anything,” she said. “I’ve been told by other men I should be more lady-like or deferential, or that men don’t want to hear that from a woman.”

Learned never let that stop her. Sometimes she’d bring up her past work restoring houses to show her colleagues, employees or potential clients she has hands-on experience. Other times she’d sleep on it or go for a run to figure out a better way to present her plans.

Once during an interview for one of her earlier facilities director positions, a top official seemed convinced she couldn’t do the job because she wasn’t an engineer.

“I looked at him and said, ‘There is something that’s not on my résumé,’” she said. “I started to tell him about collecting and repairing antique cars. I started to rattle them off: Model Ts from the ‘20s and ‘30s, trucks, crazy things.”

He realized, she said, that there was more to her than meets the eye. 

“That same person not only said, ‘Hire her,’ he went around campus saying, ‘Do you know what cars she used to have?’” Learned laughed. “When someone decides I’m too pretty, little, female, sometimes then I’ll meet them on a different level.

“These are stereotypes we all would hope no longer exist," she said, "but in some people they do.”

Across the state Wednesday, residents and leaders gathered to acknowledge "A Day Without Women," an event organized by the same people who put together January's Women's March.

In Hartford, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman spoke in support of women's rights and equality. Quinnipiac University marked International Women's Day and the day without women event with a free teach-in featuring women-focused discussions led by about 10 professors, along with student-run information booths.

And, in New London, women and their allies gathered in shifts at Parade Plaza throughout the day to, according to organizers, show "that America is still for the people, by the people and that we, the people, will not be silenced."

l.boyle@theday.com

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