Kathy Nelson has an interesting metric for gauging the gender gap in utility engineering. 

Industry events, she says with a laugh, are among “the few places where there are never lines for the [women’s] bathroom.” 

Nelson, the principal telecommunications engineer at Great River Energy (GRE), has seen progress over the years in bringing women into the engineering field, but she says there’s a long way to go. 

“We are still a rarity,” she says. 

Nelson’s commitment to fostering prominent engineering role models for girls got a big boost in 2017 when she was elected as the first woman to chair the board of the Utilities Technology Council (UTC), a worldwide trade association focused on telecommunications and technology used by utilities. 

“Girls need to see women in these roles in order to imagine engineering as a profession they might want to go into,” she says. 

A native of Moorhead, Minnesota, Nelson built on a childhood interest in science and math when, in 1989, she enrolled in electrical engineering at North Dakota State University, across the river in Fargo. She had three other female classmates out of a class of 75. 

“When I graduated, there were about 4 percent women in electrical engineering,” she recalls. “It has one of the lowest percentages of women engineers. There are still less than 10 percent women graduating with degrees in electrical engineering. It is growing, but very slowly.” 

Nelson started working at Great River Energy, a generation and transmission (G&T) cooperative based in Maple Grove, Minnesota, in 1993, the year she graduated. 

“I was the first female engineer out in the field working with technicians and linemen,” she says. “Great River Energy has several women engineers now.” 

She was recruited to the UTC board in 2008, initially serving on its rural issues subcommittee. 

“When I joined UTC’s board of directors, there were close to 80 board members, but only one other woman,” Nelson says. “This was fairly representative of many utilities and utility organizations.” 

She sees her UTC service as a great opportunity to provide value to the utility industry and grow professionally and personally. 

“UTC is a great place to network with other utilities who have similar issues or similar telecommunications and technology systems,” she says. “Many smaller distribution cooperatives and municipals have limited staff and do not have expertise in [modern] telecommunications systems. UTC provides that conduit for members to interact with each other, hear what other utilities are doing, and leverage a huge network of telecommunications engineers and technologists and their experiences.”

And as a vehicle for giving utility engineers a voice in shaping public policy on complicated telecommunications and technology issues, UTC stands alone, Nelson adds. 

“There is a lack of understanding by many federal agencies about how utilities utilize telecommunications systems,” she says. “They do not understand the criticality of our telecommunications networks, and we need to educate them. … I didn’t realize the importance of this earlier on in my career.” 

Great River Energy has been a UTC member for more than 40 years, and top management at the G&T were pleased and proud when one of their own became chair of the council’s board. 

“Kathy’s participation in the UTC, and this leadership position, provides tremendous value to Great River Energy, our members, and the utility industry by bringing visibility and a rural voice on important utility telecommunication issues,” says Jim Jones, Great River Energy’s vice president & chief information officer. 

Nelson hopes her work for the council will boost co-op participation in the group. 

“My main objective as UTC chairwoman this year is to help grow its membership of distribution cooperatives and municipals,” she says. 

But underneath her work at UTC and Great River Energy is an abiding desire to encourage girls and young women to consider a profession in engineering. 

“Engineering principles and the laws of physics,” she says, “are the same regardless of gender.” 

Know someone RE Magazine could profile for our “Front Lines” column? We’re looking for co-op operations and member services staffers, from meter readers to lineworkers to engineers, who make things work at electric co-ops nationwide. Contact us at remag@nreca.coop, or you can reach writer John Vanvig directly at johnlvanvig@yahoo.com or 360-624-4595.