Sunday, March 1, 2020 - 12:09pm

City of Madison Engineering shared one profile a day to celebrate National Women in Construction Week, March 1-7, 2020

“It’s an important perspective, making our cities better for animals and making our cities better for people.”

The mindset of engineer Sally Swenson wraps around the idea of embracing nature harmoniously with compatible infrastructure: It’s not an easy thing to do, but a challenge she loves after working 11 years at the City of Madison Engineering Division.

Swenson has devoted her time in the industry to figuring out ways to improve the environment while still meeting the needs of the rapid growing world we live in. Swenson’s journey includes a start in the sub-zero flat lands of Bemidji, Minn., where she was born, to beautiful wilderness found in the heart of Alaska.

“I grew up in the middle of the woods, that is my baseline for perspective,” Swenson said. “It was a little town of about 1,800. The next ‘sizable’ town is 90 miles away. You know everyone. Everyone knows you. But you could walk out a back door and walk up a mountain. It has influenced me, coming from Alaska and it’s a place, where there are not a lot of individual restrictions. There aren’t a lot of gender restrictions.”

Swenson grew up in rural areas with no geographical boundaries, or career hurdles getting in her way, even when she decided to pursue engineering, a profession typically male-dominated.

“I graduated from a very small high school, but there were five or six of us studying engineering at University of Alaska-Fairbanks alone,” Swenson said. “In a place like Alaska, there is a lot more gender equality. It was never like ‘why would a girl want to be an engineer?’ My graduating class at UAF was 30-40 percent women, which I think, was pretty high at the time on a national level for civil engineering.”

Swenson earned a degree in Civil Engineering at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, worked for a geohydrology consulting company, focusing on surface and groundwater interaction studies, and then an environmental consulting company, focusing on environmental remediation in Prudhoe Bay and along the Tran Alaska Pipeline. 

“I actually started a few days after someone shot the pipeline and caused a 300,000-gallon oil spill,” Swenson said. “… We [Swenson’s team] spent the winter excavating contaminated dirt [to clean the oil up].”
Working within the resource extraction industry was a test for Swenson, typically being one of few women in the more remote sites, but again, never something that kept her from learning, growing and progressing.

“In the oil fields, the ratio of men to women was a lot to a little. At times, it could be trying,” Swenson said.

After Alaska, Swenson moved to Virginia to focus on dam rehabilitation for three years. Finally, she moved to Madison, Wis., where she’s used all of her experience both personally and academically, to continue to follow her original passion of making infrastructure purposeful and harmonious with the environment. Swenson works in the stormwater section of the City of Madison Engineering Division, focusing on greenways and stormwater management, a focus she says is “a little bit of nature in the City.”

It’s a place she feels is right where she should be, and has been for the last 11 years with the City, somewhere she hopes other women can see themselves, too.

“We’re living in a time where engineering and construction fields are more welcoming to women, and it’s not as limiting to young women who want to pursue this field,” Swenson said. “You don’t have to justify why you want to be there anymore.”

City of Madison Engineering shared one profile a day to celebrate National Women in Construction Week, March 1-7, 2020.


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