Astros executive spends her career breaking barriers in male-dominated fields

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- As Astros Vice President of Community Relations and Executive Director of the Astros Foundation, Paula Harris is part of a new generation of women knocking down barriers in men's professional sports.

The Houston-born executive feels her unique experiences and perspective make the baseball organization better.

"Here in the Houston area, we have a little bit for everyone, and we want everyone to feel comfortable, and we want to make sure that we're entertaining all," Harris said. "I think that one of the reasons we are extremely successful is because of some of the really phenomenal women that work right here in this building."

Harris' whole career has been in male-dominated fields. After graduating from Katy Taylor High School, her dad said she could go to college anywhere, but the only education he'd pay for was a Texas A&M petroleum engineering degree.

He'd read there were highly paid, and she went along, though unclear what the job entailed.

"So my next question was, what's engineering?" Harris said with a laugh.

After college, she worked for Schlumberger in the oil and gas industry, where she stayed for 33 years. She began her career visiting rigs.

"I worked offshore for seven years, and 99.9% of the time I hit a rig, I was the only female and the only African American on the rig," Harris said.

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And yes, she faced harassment. One instance, in particular, stands out, isolated with a man in the field.

"It was three o'clock in the morning, backward Louisiana out at a rig site, mud everywhere," said Harris, "I'm dirty. I'm tired. And I remember when I got him to sign my work order, and I was headed back to my company car, and he hit me on the butt, and he says, 'I hope to see you again soon.'"

Harris was protected because of Title IX, and her employer respected her request to never return to that site.

Nearly 30 years later, she's in a very different field. She organizes events like the Jackie Robinson tribute, where she interviews groundbreaking athletes.

While working in oil and gas, she'd worked on projects with the owner of the Houston Astros, Jim Crane. When Crane learned she'd left her job, he drafted her to join his club.

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She never expected to work in sports, but she brought her corporate sensibilities to sports and her philosophy for handling a male-dominated industry.

"I'm not here to be your mama, (or) your best friend. I'm here to be a colleague that is a value-adding professional, as you are," Harris said.

Harris has written several books and makes a point of educating girls and people of color about the opportunities in these non-traditional careers. After 50 years of Title IX, she's excited about the future for young women, like her own daughter.

"It's going to be different for them to walk in," said Harris, "I'm so excited to think they won't be the first, and that's good. I know that they see things happening like women coaching and women owning sports organizations and owning big businesses, and you see this, you think, I could do that. And it's not going t be just one or two of us. There will be a big group of us that make it up there and are very successful."

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