Women professionals are bringing new thinking and ideas to infrastructure-related decision-making, especially as the industry looks to diversify its pool of talent and expertise. As evidenced by the growth of the Canada-wide Women’s Infrastructure Network (WIN), professional interactions involving often under-represented professionals can bring tremendous benefits to the entire infrastructure renewal and rehabilitation community.

WIN grew from a breakfast group of about 20 women who connected informally. WIN opened a Toronto chapter in 2008, with British Columbia and Alberta joining up in 2011 and 2012 respectively. WIN now represents about 500 professionals across the country, many of whom share experience at the organization’s annual conference. It now provides networking opportunities and professional development for women working in all infrastructure areas.

With chapters in Toronto, London, Calgary, Vancouver, and even internationally, WIN recognized that an established network would not only support current members in their work, but would also serve as a forum to attract younger women and students to consider careers in the wider infrastructure community. WIN now represents some 2,600 women professionals worldwide.

“I began working in the construction industry in 2000. Back then, I was the only woman on site, with 200 men,” said Lindsay Karpetz, senior project manager with Infrastructure Ontario. “I found that the members of WIN saw my qualifications first, not my gender.”

Karpetz said WIN provides a starting point for meaningful conversations and networking opportunities for women professionals. It also exposes junior members to more senior counterparts, thereby enabling mentoring and shared experience opportunities.

“Infrastructure-related decision making relies on all types of expertise,” Karpetz added. “The WIN network includes members from all corners of the industry and allows them to leverage the ‘partnership’ element of P3s [public-private partnerships]. This, in turn, encourages innovation. WIN is a true reflection of the talent that exists in the industry.”

The network recently presented awards to its outstanding leaders at the organization’s April 2015 Inaugural Awards Program. Leslie Woo, chief planning officer at Metrolinx, the Greater Toronto Transportation Authority, won the outstanding leaders award, while Tricia Curmi, a Vancouver-based engineer with Kiewit Infrastructure Co., took the emerging leader prize. ReNew Canada editor André Voshart was also a member of the judging committee. (Planning for the 2016 awards program is underway, with the launch of the nominations process anticipated in November 2015.)

Long an advocate of diversity and women’s advancement in the professions, Woo is a key player in the Metrolinx’s Big Move, an intensive, $30-billion, 25-year transportation plan for the greater Toronto-Hamilton area. “At a time where every federal party has identified infrastructure as a critical issue nationally, the importance of WIN has never been more pressing,” Woo said. “Bringing the best and brightest to the table to plan, deliver, and operate the infrastructure our country needs, at the highest quality, means utilizing the full strength of our work force and talent.”

“Women make up half of the workforce. WIN plays a critical role in connecting and showcasing the full impact women can have in shaping our cities and towns. WIN can meet the challenge for the many unsung heroines whose work will have legacy impacts by ‘daylighting’ more female role models and champions.”

For Woo, daylighting refers to providing talented but under-recognized women the opportunity to bring their talents forward in the infrastructure sector. “We use the term daylighting when we uncover buried rivers or streams in cities,” she added, “so it’s about uncovering hidden treasures.”

Aside from recognizing the contributions of its membership, WIN is playing a key role in strengthening Canada’s infrastructure renewal community. WIN was among the early voices promoting diversity of ideas as a major boost in decision making and problem solving.

The diversity of ideas thinking is also making inroad in the engineering profession. And given that sector’s prevalence in infrastructure planning, any move encouraging diversity of ideas and practitioners can only lead to better things.

Engineer Cheryl Nelms is director of project and quality management with the City of Vancouver and a founding member of the B.C. WIN’s chapter. She said WIN can play a key role in encouraging fully one half of the labour force to look for careers where they are typically underrepresented. “We need to encourage women to enter the infrastructure field and also retain them,” she said. “Without this support, many may not consider careers in engineering/technology, and then society is missing out on the perspectives for 50 per cent of the population—both with their ideas and as a portion of the workforce.”

Nelms, who earlier in her career was often the only woman engineer in a room full of men, said full diversity benefits more than just project participants. “Infrastructure projects have significant impacts on communities and the people,” Nelms said. “A project team with a makeup from diverse backgrounds, nationalities, experiences, and genders brings a higher volume and quality of ideas and solutions to a community.”

This emphasis on engaging all genders in recruiting infrastructure industry talent and expertise was also picked up on by federal politician Peter Braid of Kitchener-Waterloo, who was the guest speaker at the Spring 2015 Inaugural WIN Awards Ceremony. Braid, who at the time served as parliamentary secretary for infrastructure and communities for the federal Conservatives (and who was seeking re-election during this article’s writing) said communities need to harness all available talent to succeed in an increasingly competitive and globalized world.

“And that means encouraging women to pursue careers in fields that are grounded in maths and sciences, including most aspects of the infrastructure industry,” Braid said.

Lawyer Danna Donald of the Toronto office Osler, Hoskin and Harcourt, is a member of the Toronto WIN chapter steering committee. Already a big player in the infrastructure community, her expertise includes construction, project finance, P3s, and alternative financing contracts.

“This is a generalization, but I think many women are inherently solution-oriented,” Donald said. “It comes from juggling the many demands we have as professional women, spouses, mothers, and active members in our community. Women are used to balancing competing demands and finding a way for everyone to win. This goes a long way in a negotiation or in managing a project with many stakeholders with competing views.”

In addition to the obvious benefit to women professionals through WIN, Donald believes there are also generational advantages. “When I look around my office at my many male engineering colleagues, they are, coincidentally, almost all the dads of daughters,” Donald said. “They want their daughters to succeed in the professional world. […] I think this is going to help reshape the traditional mentor/mentee relationships in the workplace, and as their daughters grow up and want to achieve similar personal success, in the fields of engineering, technology, or infrastructure, their fathers will be well positioned to understand and support them in their pursuits.”

 

Michael Mastromatteo is a Toronto-based writer and editor.

 

PHOTO CAPTION: WIN Emerging Leader award winner Tricia Curmi in Calgary in April 2015.

 

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