Judy Wagner knew as early as grade school that she wanted to be an engineer.
The recently retired Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) area engineer for Franklin and Jefferson counties spoke to The Missourian her last week on the job, looking back on a career that was even more unexpected for women in the ’80s and ’90s when Wagner was getting started.
She credits her mom, teachers and even some of her male bosses with encouraging her when she needed it and giving her the same support they gave the men. But it was Wagner’s father who first introduced her to the field.
“I would go to work with my dad, who was a carpenter, and I would notice the people who were cleaner and were in charge, and I asked him, ‘Dad, what do they do?’ ” Wagner recalled. “ ‘Those are the engineers,’ he told me.”
As a student, she did well in math and science, and at Bishop DuBourg High School in St. Louis, career testing on her likes and interests suggested engineer.
Her upper level math and science classes were predominantly made up of boys.
“In physics, I think there were three girls in my class. Calculus and those kinds of classes were all men,” said Wagner.
At the University of Missouri-Rolla, now Missouri Science & Technology, where Wagner earned her degree in civil engineering, there were far more men on campus. The college, which has long been known for its engineering school, had a ratio back then of one female to every 10 males, said Wagner.
Just like in high school, her engineering classes at Rolla had very few, if any, other women in them.
“It was intimidating the first few times, but my mom was always behind me saying, ‘No matter if you are in the minority or not, you are still smart enough to be there.’ So she gave me the encouragement to keep going,” said Wagner.
Her math teacher in high school also was equally supportive. She taught analytical geometry and trigonometry, and Wagner remembers being the only female student in the room.
“She was always saying, ‘Judy, you can do this!’ Because I would get frustrated with something, and she would just be like, ‘You got this! You got this!’ Wagner recalled. “And she would say, ‘Next semester you need to take calculus and you need to do this, you need to do that.’ ”
As an adult, Wagner saw her old teacher at a restaurant and showed her gratitude by buying her dinner. It wasn’t as though the boy students never got frustrated with the work, said Wagner, but as the only girl in the class, the teacher didn’t want her getting getting discouraged.
“These were tough classes,” said Wagner. “Engineering is a tough curriculum, and the boys all had study buddies, but I always thought they didn’t want to study with me — until I got to Rolla, and then that’s when all the guys were like, ‘Oh, you’re on the dean’s list. You’re smart!’ And they’d be banging on my door at all hours asking, ‘Did you do this lab? Did you finish this?’ Because I was pretty particular with everything I did, and I did get good grades.”
Looking back, Wagner said she was pretty confident in her ability by the time she enrolled at Rolla and was prepared to get through whatever she had to to earn her degree.
But getting through school and starting her career as a woman in a nontraditional field was tough. Earning the respect and opportunities that were naturally bestowed on her male colleagues was a challenge too.
She recalled one time in 1989, when she was working as an intern for Union Pacific Railroad in Omaha, Neb., and the three male interns she worked with were invited to go on a field trip out on the rail lines to inspect some bridges, but she wasn’t allowed to go.
The reason? The students shared hotel rooms to keep costs down, and Wagner, as the only woman, would need her own room. That was a tough reality to face.
“Really, I have to miss out on this field trip to ride these cool trains and cars all because I am a female?” she thought.
“That’s when it really hit me,” said Wagner. “My grades got me this job, but as a woman in the field . . . ” she was going to face obstacles the men didn’t.
That field trip experience wasn’t an isolated incident. Serving as an intern in the maintenance department at MoDOT, Wagner encountered the same kind of limitations.
“There were a few men who were so helpful and receptive and taught me how to do things, just like they would any other intern,” said Wagner. “But then there were a few who treated me like, ‘You’re just some dumb woman. Get out of the way, and I’ll do it.’ That kind of thing; I got that impression anyway.”
Had to Prove Herself on the Job
Things improved once Wagner had graduated and went to work for MoDOT.
“My boss was just phenomenal,” she said. “He treated me as equal as anybody else.”
He judged her not on her gender, but on her work ethic and her work itself. Other people she worked with weren’t always so accepting — at least not at first.
When she worked as a construction inspector, Wagner often had to prove herself to the contractors to get them to accept her.
“The first day on the job when we’d start a contract, they would go over my head all the time until I proved to them that I was in charge,” she said. “And then once they got to know me, then they actually came to me for assistance in reading plans and doing things.
“It just sometimes takes that extra week, month, meeting, whatever it is, for you to overcome that obstacle of being a female. But then like anything else, once you show them who you are, your work ethic and your quality shines through.”
Looking back on her career, Wagner said she’s had no regrets about going into engineering and encourages more women to follow suit. She even mentors them and offers advice.
“I’m glad I did it,” Wanger remarked. “We have a lot of young female engineers who are in a lot of similar situations, but it was a little easier for them.”
There are more women entering the field of engineering today than ever before, especially in construction. Wagner noted that when she entered the field, she was one of only two women in the St. Louis region.
“Now we probably have one or two dozen,” she said.
Wagner recalled being told at one point in her career that women at MoDOT weren’t promoted to the job of resident engineer, simple because they were women. It shocked her.
It also made the feeling that much sweeter when she was promoted, becoming the first female resident engineer in the St. Louis District.
Wagner’s career at MoDOT began as a construction engineer. In time she received several promotions — to intermediate construction inspector, then senior construction inspector and in January 1997, resident engineer.
Five years later in May 2002 Wagner was promoted again to area engineer for Jefferson and Franklin counties.
Wagner served as the MoDOT area engineer here for 17 years, and in that time she attended nearly every monthly meeting of the Washington Area Transportation Committee to keep officials informed on state transportation news. She also listened to the committee’s concerns and provided input on projects and plans.
During Wagner’s 17-year tenure covering Franklin County, there have been several major highway projects, including Highway KK improvements, Highway 100 widening from Washington to Interstate 44, and the new Missouri River bridge at Washington.
Among all of the projects she managed in Franklin County, Wagner said the Missouri River bridge was the one that stands out the most. It certainly was the longest project she worked on, beginning in 2007 and ending just this year.
It also was the biggest in size and scope.
“I feel so fortunate to work on that, to work with the community and just try to get everybody in line and the funding,” said Wagner. “And now to see it complete, it has just been an honor to be able to do that. That is definitely my most honored project to have been a part of, by far.”
Other standout projects included the Highway 100 widening project, “which was a complete cost share, which means it wouldn’t have been funded without a partnership with the locals,” and the Highway 50 improvements, which she described as “probably the biggest conglomeration of partners that we’ve ever had, because the county, the city and MoDOT all came together.”
Advice to Young Girls
Wagner’s advice to young girls today who excel at math and science, just like she did, is the same that she received from her mother and teachers: You can do it!
“If you have the interest and the desire to be an engineer and use your brain in a way that helps society, then go for it, because you can do it,” said Wagner. “There are glass ceilings in every career, in everything, but you can do whatever you put your mind to, no matter if you are male or female.”
Wagner talks to Girl Scout troops, at grade schools and young female engineers in the workforce. She advises them on how to strike the balance between work and home life and following the path that’s right for them. Some have come to her asking for her input on whether they should apply for a promotion.
That’s a personal decision, she tells them. Whether or not it’s the right fit for you depends on what you want out of life.
“You, yourself, as a woman know what you want out of life,” she said. “My main focus in my career was to be a mom first, so my kids always took precedent. I was fortunate to live in the same county where I worked, but if I had put in for a promotion in Chesterfield, at our main office, I would have been away from my kids extra time, before and after school.
“If your No. 1 goal in life is to raise kids and be successful, and you’re in a job that you’re comfortable with, you’ve got the flexibility to do it, then it might not be the right time to go for a promotion,” said Wagner. “Sometimes you do have to sit back a little bit because of what you want and what’s best for your family, but always know if you want something, you can get it, and then go after it 100 percent.”
The STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) push that has been going on in education the last several years has been a good thing for those students who are naturally adept at math and science as a way to encourage them — especially girls — to stick with it, if they really have a strong interest.
There is still a shortage of engineers across the country, said Wagner, and STEM is helping encourage younger and youngers students to follow their interest and ability in it.
“It’s great that they are starting STEM younger and younger because it gives those kids the ability to start younger if they are interested in math and science, so we can get that talented type student into the program at an earlier age so that they can be successful as engineers.”