Women in Male-Dominated Fields: Cynthia Pederson
October 27, 2016 | Focus on Women
Cynthia Pederson experienced gender bias for the first time during college registration. She and a male classmate met with an advisor to decide what courses to take as freshmen. The advisor suggested advanced-level math and science classes for Pederson’s classmate. But for her, he recommended lower-level classes despite her similar academic record and aspirations.
Luckily, she went against his advice and took the higher-level classes, putting her on the path to a degree in chemical engineering and a more than 30-year career with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. As the agency’s first female regional administrator, she leads 200 employees who protect public health and safety by regulating nuclear power reactors and materials across the Midwest.
Growing up, Pederson had a strong female role model in her mother, a confident working woman with a successful federal government career.
“I am grateful to have had a mother who was a trailblazer of her generation,” Pederson said. She hopes that she has similarly influenced her daughter, who is majoring in biomedical engineering.
Getting Comfortable Being Uncomfortable
Being a female in a male-dominated science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) field, Pederson is often the only woman in the room and has become “comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
“It was clear there were people who thought I should not be there,” she said. “Instead of letting it crush my spirit, I recognized it and thought that with time they might learn to accept me and value me for what I could contribute.”
Pederson recalled her training to become a resident inspector at a nuclear power plant, where a visiting male inspector told her he only agreed to train her because he had to, not because he wanted to. Rather than letting comments like this set her back, she focused on her goals and did her best work to prove that she belonged there. She maintained her professionalism, working her way up in the agency, and one day became that man’s boss.
Leveling the Playing Field
Pederson strives to help women and underrepresented minorities discover their potential. Despite the fact that only 10 to 12 percent of American engineers are female, Pederson is proud to say that women make up 20 percent of her region’s technical staff.
She also works to combat unconscious bias in the workplace. In her meetings, Pederson makes a point of directly asking women for their opinions and acknowledging their contributions, giving a voice to those who may be hesitant to speak up. Following her example, male managers in the region have begun doing the same.
“If you’re in tune to it, you can help bring it out and give credit where credit is due,” she said.
She also encourages young women to take on stretch roles, even if they feel they aren’t ready. Early in her career, she was asked to participate on a high-level cross-agency committee. Pederson didn’t necessarily feel that she was the best person for the job, but she took the opportunity and ran with it. The leaders she interacted with recognized her good work, and she was able to make a name for herself.
“If someone had asked for volunteers, I probably would not have raised my hand,” she said. “We need to encourage women to lean forward, raise their hands and go in confidently.”
Being a Mom and a Leader
When Pederson was pregnant with her first child, she struggled with whether to return to work or stay home. She ultimately decided to go back to work, and after her maternity leave, her husband took six weeks off, which was just one example of how they supported each other as they both balanced work and family life.
“I realized I could do it, and I liked it,” she said. “I liked the mix of being a mom and a leader.”
When one of Pederson’s staff members struggled with the same decision, Pederson shared her experiences as a working mother and helped her see that she could continue to grow in her technical career. That woman also returned to work and is now a leader in the agency.
“When you take time to interact and provide advice, you can make a difference,” she said.
Encouraging the Next Generation
Pederson regularly speaks with students about engineering careers and gives her employees time to do the same. People of all ages, she said, are often not familiar with engineering, and she wants to bring awareness to the broad spectrum of technical careers that are both rewarding and lucrative.
“Engineering is putting science to work,” she said.
As a woman in STEM and a woman in leadership, Pederson has taken it upon herself to make the path easier for those behind her. It begins with education and continues with encouraging people to take advantage of the opportunities that will propel them to the next level.