Nancye L. Bethurem is the Division Counsel/Assistant Chief Counsel for the Southwestern Division, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a position she has held since March 2013. In this position, she serves as the principal legal advisor to the Division Commander on all matters of regional importance within the Command’s area of operation. Principal areas of practice include federal acquisition, environmental, fiscal, labor and employment, real property, international, constitutional, regulatory and general administrative law. She also exercises staff oversight of the Division-wide legal program; assists the USACE Chief Counsel by providing regional oversight of legal services and District Counsel legal offices and informs the USACE Chief Counsel of issues and activities of potential national significance and of precedent setting value.
In observance of Women’s History Month, Bethurem, a veteran of both private practice, corporate (in-house practice) and government service, shared thoughts on her accomplishments, role models, and advice she gives women in the workforce today.
The theme of the 2018 Women’s History Month is “NEVERTHELESS, SHE PERSISTED: Honoring Women Who Fight All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.”
Q. Is there a woman in your professional career or life that you would like to highlight for her courage and tenacity in overcoming obstacles and achieving success? Who is or was your female role model and why?
A. If anyone has personified the theme “Nevertheless, She Persisted,” it was one of my early inspirational role models, Rep. Patsy Takemoto Mink, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from the State of Hawaii for more than 20 years. In fact, one of my principals in junior high school frequently compared me to Rep. Mink—he meant it as an insult; I took it as a compliment! It was during this time that Rep. Mink co-authored Title IX (since renamed the Patsy Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act), mandating equal treatment for women and men in education, and she worked zealously for its passage. She then helped pass the Women’s Educational Equity Act in 1974, which provided funding to prevent discrimination in educational programs.
Rep. Mink’s personal experience was part of the impetus for overcoming obstacles and pursuing her goals. She applied to a dozen medical schools; all denied her admission because she was a woman. So she earned a law degree, thinking that she would set about to change the law. But she was denied a job in a law firm because she was a mother. So she started her own firm, accepting a fish as payment for her first case. She then ran for political office and went on to serve 12 sessions in the House of Representatives, representing Hawaii and finally enacting laws to eliminate discrimination. Her perseverance in the face of obstacles was an incredible inspiration to me. She persisted time and again against overwhelming odds, and opened many doors for women.
Q. What do you consider to be your biggest accomplishment thus far in your career?
A. That is a very challenging question, as there are many noteworthy legal matters that I have worked on throughout my career that have resulted in significant changes in the law. However, I think that organizing the Texas Women Lawyers Association, and serving as the first President for 18 months, was probably one of my biggest accomplishments. The organization was created to coordinate, facilitate and promote women’s issues in the law and in the profession throughout the state, and has had a tremendous impact. During the first term, this organization of women attorneys was able to support and provide educational information regarding legislation that advanced equal rights for women in the workplace as well as in domestic situations throughout Texas. Concurrently, I was president of the Dallas Women Lawyers Association, and worked to eliminate discrimination in employment, pay, housing, education and insurance for women throughout the state. I worked on these volunteer associations while employed full time at local law firms, and found the volunteer work and the accomplishments of the organizations extremely rewarding.
Q. Has there ever been a time in your career where you felt you were being discriminated against or had roadblocks to overcome? If so, how did you handle it?
A. Yes, there were times that were challenging, mostly related to pay issues. When I started teaching after undergraduate school, there were still separate pay schedules for men and women—hard to believe today! Women were paid significantly less, no matter how many years of experience or educational level. The separate pay scales have now been eliminated from most school systems, thanks to the effects of the Equal Pay Act and other legislation that make such blatant discrimination illegal. Within the legal field (and others), pay disparity is still a significant issue, although the federal government uses pay scales to make pay as objective as possible. I handled the issue each time it impacted me by working hard, learning as much as possible at that particular position and appreciating every opportunity that I had. I also worked with others to eliminate discriminatory pay scales where I have worked when possible.
Q. How do you honor and celebrate the struggles and achievements of American women?
A. I participate actively in the National Association of Women Attorneys (I am a former Regional Director for Texas, Hawaii, and Nevada), an organization formed in 1899 that advocates for the equality of women under the law. When I worked as an attorney in the corporate office at Walmart, I was able to convince Walmart to support NAWL as part of its Diversity Program, and since that time the corporation has continued as a strong supporter of NAWL, providing the financial and organizational support to allow NAWL to conduct national and regional programming focused on giving women lawyers legal and business skills to succeed in the legal profession, and conduct leadership summits, including a leadership summit at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Q. What advice would you give young women entering the workforce about potential discrimination or other roadblocks and how to rise above it?
A. While there may be discrimination or other roadblocks, your hard work, grit and perseverance will get you through the hard times and you will have a rewarding, wonderful career. What you learn about your own strength of character while working through the adversities will make you a better person and able to overcome the challenges that you will face down the road. Be willing to take chances and to work to change the status quo, even when there is risk involved.
Q. How has the workforce changed for women since you began your career?
A. The workforce has changed significantly for women, and in particular, women attorneys. When I graduated from law school, my class was almost 50 percent women, but the bar was composed of mostly male attorneys. In 1986, women were 14 percent of the Texas bar; the Texas bar is now 36 percent women. Many workplace policies in the legal profession have changed due to the larger number of women attorneys entering the profession in the last 30 years.
Q. Is there anything else you would like to add?
A. I have always thought that it is important to make my life and career meaningful and help bring about change where needed. Another way of saying “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” (Mother Teresa)
Prior to her position as Division Counsel, Bethurem spent more than eight years working as in-house counsel. She most recently served as Senior Counsel with Savannah River Remediation LLC (a company comprised of URS, Bechtel, CH2M Hill and B&W). In that role, she provided environmental, nuclear compliance, government contracting, and health and safety advice to top executives of the company at a Federal nuclear site under a contract with the Department of Energy for safe storage and remediation of hazardous and radioactive materials and waste. Prior to working for the URS affiliate, Bethurem served as an Assistant General Counsel, Commercial Litigation Section, at Walmart Stores, Inc., where she acted as the primary legal advisor in the areas of real estate, environmental and commercial litigation.
Her education includes a B.A., summa cum laude, in History from the University of Missouri-Rolla, a B.S. in Education from the University of Missouri-Columbia, a Masters of Education-Guidance and Counseling degree from Central Missouri State University, and a Juris Doctorate, with honors, from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She is also a graduate of UNLV, earning a Ph.D. in Environmental Science with a focus on Environmental Policy and Management.
She is a past President of Texas Women Lawyers, past President of the Dallas Women Lawyers Association, past President of Hawaii Women Lawyers, past Regional Director of the National Association of Women Lawyers and remains active in these associations. She is also active in Attorneys Serving the Community, a volunteer community organization in Dallas, TX. She has held leadership positions in the Dallas Bar Association, the Texas Bar Association and the American Bar Association, Section of Environment, Energy and Resources. She has been a frequent speaker, moderator and program planner for these organizations.
Bethurem was awarded the Ma’at Award by the State Bar of Texas, an award given annually to an individual who has actively addressed the needs and issues of women in the legal profession and the community.The Ma’at Award is named after the Egyptian goddess who represented truth, justice, balance and morality and therefore recognizes and celebrates one attorney each year who most contributed to the furtherance of justice in our society.