Growing up on a dairy farm in Sebeka, Minn., Shelly Pederson developed a mechanical bent at an early age. Now Pederson, 56, is Minnesota City Engineer of the Year, the first woman to be so honored by the City Engineers Association of Minnesota.
Pederson has been Bloomington’s city engineer since 1999. A licensed civil engineer, she supervises a staff of 31 and oversaw construction worth more than $26 million in 2014. In this Q&A, Pederson talks about life as a woman in a male-dominated field. The interview has been condensed for brevity.
Q: What was your reaction to being named City Engineer of the Year?
A: I think it’s an honor to be recognized by your peers. I love doing engineering, and I always have. Hopefully, I will be a good role model for all those young women who want to enter the field of engineering — who are maybe wondering, “Can I do that?” Someone whom young women starting their careers can see enjoys their work and has been successful.
When I started, the joke was there was no line at the ladies’ bathroom at an engineering conference. There were just a handful of us, and we all knew each other. Now there’s a line!
Q: What does a civil engineer do?
A: We do a lot of municipal work. We’re very into sewers, stormwater management, transportation projects. Highways, transit, airports. A lot of things that touch people’s lives on a daily basis.
You take for granted that you open your tap and get water, that your toilet will flush; that you can drive to work on safe roads and that the airport runway is safe. That’s the work of civil engineers.
Q: Is there still a long way to go for women in engineering?
A: Yes, there’s still a long way to go. And as the boomers retire, there are fewer people coming behind us to fill those positions. So it’s important that we get anyone who’s interested in engineering to come and fill those roles, and especially the young women.
Q: What is keeping young women from getting into engineering careers?
A: I think they need more encouragement in high school in these fields. Maybe more engineers should be coming to the schools, so they can see the profession and people can talk to them about it, and see that there are opportunities. You can ask a young student if they know what a civil engineer is, and they don’t.
Some of them think, “It’s construction. It’s dirty, it’s messy, it’s outside.” They might not like those things. But there are so many things you can do in the civil engineering field without working on construction.
Q: What’s your favorite thing about the job?
A: Building things. Whether it’s a bridge, or a bikeway — just building things that people will use and enjoy safely for years to come. Helping to make their lives enjoyable and safe.
Q: What’s your least favorite thing?
A: After a while, the night meetings wear on you.
Q: What project are you proudest of?
A: The Lindau Lane corridor in our South Loop district. It was very challenging because we had a lot of partners. And it really was transforming the district to more of a walkable area. Yes, it’s heavily auto-centric. But we tried to bring the scale down a little and pull the whole district together.