#FemaleFriday

Kolleen Backlund, PE

Kolleen is a Geotechnical Engineer with Kleinfelder, Inc. with over eight years of post-graduate civil engineering experience. Kolleen completed her bachelor’s degree in civil engineering at Washington State University and her master’s degree in civil engineering with a geotechnical focus at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Kolleen has experience in geotechnical and structural analysis and design, geotechnical subsurface exploration, soils laboratory testing, construction monitoring, and project management, using these skills to provide foundation solutions for transportation, gas and oil, and electric power transmission infrastructure. Kolleen enjoys being an active member of the American Society of Civil Engineers and the Delaware Valley Geotechnical Institute. She served two terms as K-12 outreach co-coordinator for the Philadelphia Section Younger Member Forum, organizes and serves as a judge for the Mid-Atlantic Regional GeoWall Student competition, and regularly completes community outreach to educate Philadelphia-area students of all ages (pre-school to college) about civil engineering. Her favorite outreach events include Widener University’s Mini-Camp for high school females and Girls Exploring Tomorrow’s Technology (GETT).

How/when did you realize you wanted to be a civil engineer? / Why did you first study engineering?

I did not consider becoming a civil engineer until the end of my sophomore year of college. I started college as a business operations and management major. Mid-sophomore year I researched career opportunities and was not interested in opportunities available for business majors. The "rocks for jocks" class I was taking at the time rekindled a childhood passion for geology. I expressed interest in geology to my parents, both civil engineers, who pushed me toward geotechnical engineering. Even though my parents are both civil engineers, I was initially not interested because I assumed civil engineering was boring and hard. I was unaware of all the different and exciting opportunities within civil engineering where I could combine management and technical skills. Through the opportunities arranged by my parents I realized geotechnical engineering was for me. These opportunities changed the course of my life and have fueled my passion for STEM outreach, hoping to provide similar positive opportunities and awareness to others.

What are some of your favorite projects completed in your career and why?

My favorite projects have also been some of the most challenging “cradle-to-grave” projects. To successfully manage a project that has resulted in so much personal growth, having a team come together to achieve a common goal, and seeing the final, constructed product are my favorite things as a civil engineer. The feeling that all these things have been part of something that improves a community is my reason “why” for continuing to the next challenging project.

What advice would you give young female engineers entering the civil engineering workforce?

A common topic I am asked to speak about during outreach events is what it’s like being a female in a predominantly male industry. My response is to give co-workers the benefit of the doubt that they aren't going to treat you with less respect than they would if you were male. That is not to say the very occasional person won’t. A former male co-worker told me what a pleasure I was to work with because I didn't "have a chip on my shoulder" and had accepted it was a "man's world", unlike another female in our office. Fortunately, this interaction has by far been the exception. I encourage women to assume these interactions are not normal and that they will be evaluated primarily by their work and professionalism. I was fortunate enough to be raised by an amazing, successful female civil engineer (my mom has worked as a structural engineer for almost 40 years) who led by example that there was no reason to believe I was less than a man or reason to believe I am at a disadvantage being female. This mindset has served me well. However, if you do encounter discrimination or harassment, document and report the incident through the appropriate channels. There can be a sense of embarrassment or concern in reporting these incidents. My experience has been offenders are repeat offenders. By reporting the interaction now, you are saving someone else from experiencing this in the future.

Also, a quick piece of advice - choose kindness. Always.

As a past K-12 Co-Chair for our section, how have you stayed involved in STEM outreach since then?

I have been fortunate enough to continue coming across opportunities for outreach at various student ages. I could hardly contain my excitement when dropping my son off at daycare I overheard his teacher introducing the concept of sedimentary rocks to his pre-kindergarten class. I offered (begged) the teacher to let me come in to discuss rocks and engineering. Otherwise there are the typical "career day" discussions at high schools. I also volunteer at annual events such as Girls Exploring Tomorrow's Technology (GETT), Widener University High School Girls Engineering Camp, and ASCE Mid-Atlantic Region Student GeoWall.