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Celebrating Women in STEM

On December 6, 1989, 14 female engineering students at École Polytechnique in Montréal, Canada were targeted in a mass shooting. This act of violent misogyny shocked the nation and led Parliament to designate today as the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence against Women.

By IBI Insights


December 6, 2020

On December 6, 1989, 14 female engineering students at École Polytechnique in Montréal, Canada were targeted in a mass shooting. This act of violent misogyny shocked the nation and led Parliament to designate today as the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence against Women.

This tragic event holds a special meaning for all of our professionals, especially those in Canada. As a company run by professionals in STEM disciplines, we are grateful to every woman who has contributed to the inclusive culture, and success, of our firm. Today, we’re sharing the stories of six of our Canadian female colleagues in STEM, who have kindly shared their personal experiences and advice with us.

"Speak up and share your great ideas in the boardroom."

Darlene Broderick is an Associate Director | Practice Lead in the Urban Design and Landscape Architecture department in Toronto. Over the last 10 years, she has focused on transit infrastructure projects, working on multi-disciplinary teams.

Growing up, Darlene always enjoyed being creative and implementing ideas into 3D forms. She had a keen interest in fine art and studied it formally at the post-secondary level. While at university, she realized that she wanted to do more; she took her knowledge in fine art and expanded it into shaping the natural environment in a creative and sustainable way through landscape architecture. Years later, while working on a large-scale community master plan that incorporated innovative design initiatives and sustainability, Darlene realized she wanted to work on public realm infrastructure projects to promote placemaking and urban intensification.

When asked if she had faced any unique obstacles as a woman in STEM, Darlene noted that early on in her work on infrastructure projects, she would notice that she was often the only female at meetings, surrounded by men from various engineering fields. She does notice that as the years have gone by, there has been a slight shift with more female representation in discipline leadership roles within infrastructure projects. Although it’s certainly not 50/50, the gender gap in representation is shrinking, albeit slowly.

Her advice to young female professionals in STEM is, “whether you are a university student or a young professional, get a female mentor – someone with experience who can empower you and help you make informed decisions about your career path. A mentor can provide advice on manoeuvring the academic or professional landscape as well. Also, find your voice. Speak up and share your great ideas in the boardroom.”

"It is key to have a supportive community to share advice and uplift each other."

Robyn Brown is an Associate Director | Practice Lead in our Real Estate, Economics and Planning team in Toronto. She’s been with IBI Group for almost nine years, dealing with the numbers behind the designs. This includes helping cities forecast, and plan for, growth opportunities. Some of the questions that drive her work include what will the future of retail space look like? And what will transit look like after the pandemic?

Her journey into planning was unique. After completing a master’s degree in history from the University of Toronto, Robyn found herself working as a bartender while looking for jobs in academia. It was during that time that she started working in commercial real estate. It was heavily male-dominated — in fact, Robyn was the only woman in the office who was not in an administrative assistant position. Although she ultimately chose to leave that position, it did help her find her passion in planning.

In her experience as a woman in sales, she found it challenging to be part of the team because she lacked the network that the men she worked with had — most knew each other from fraternities and sports teams. She didn’t know how to build a network, and couldn’t find many women to build one with.

In her position today, she still deals with many developers and is often the only woman in the room, but she has worked hard at portraying the confidence required to gain their respect as a leader.

Her advice to young females in STEM is to build a network; being part of the Urban Land Institute (ULI), for example, has benefitted her greatly. She adds, “it is key to have a supportive community to share advice and uplift each other.”

"Be tough but don’t lose your femininity."

Maria Dugand is an Alberta Land Surveyor (ALS) and an Associate | Manager, Geomatics in Edmonton. She moved to Canada from her home country, Columbia, in 2007, and has since focused on Municipal Land Development in Alberta.

As an ALS, she is responsible for managing a team of professionals and technologists involved in the collection and maintenance of accurate field data for the services the geomatics team provides within the greater Edmonton area and throughout the rest of the province when required.

A math whiz since she was a child, engineering was Maria’s first choice in regard to a career path. She didn’t want to go through the “regular” engineering route however, and was looking at the different options when she found geodetic engineering. “I had never heard of it before, but the more I looked into it, the more I fell in love with it… and the love is still intact today,” she said while describing how she landed on her career path.

As described by Darlene and Robyn, Maria also faced the obstacle of establishing leadership in a room of men. In her experience, STEM is still governed by men, and women sometimes struggle to be heard and respected as leaders.​​​​​​​

Her advice to young women in the field is, “be tough but don’t lose your femininity – there is always a way to do what men do, you just have to find your own way of doing it. And read the book Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus; it might sound foolish, but it will help you understand many helpful things, especially if you are working in the field.”

"Connect with like-minded professionals."

Andrea Katz is an Associate | Manager, Architecture. She works on the Living+ high-rise residential design team. From the time Andrea was very young, she knew that she wanted to be an architect. Andrea had a fascination with drawing and thinking about things from different perspectives. She would spend hours drawing common-found objects from different vantage points as well as floor plans of places she visited. 

While Andrea knew intuitively that she wanted to be an architect, she took a circuitous route getting there. In her last years of high school, Andrea was drawn to the humanities, which led her to pursue an undergraduate degree in ancient philosophy. Upon graduating, Andrea contemplated the various challenges associated with a life in academia (having to move abroad for a university post as an example) and switched gears. She completed a Master’s Degree in architecture and has been in the field ever since.

Historically, women in STEM were outnumbered.  This reality has had an impact on their leadership style, which, understandably, often focused on defending their place. Andrea believes that the archetype of women in STEM is continually evolving, and now focuses on the promotion and celebration of good leadership in both men and women. 

As a professional with two young children, Andrea continually strives to find a balance between work and family. There have been times where balance has been next to impossible to achieve, and Andrea has felt that both sides have suffered. This is why she strongly believes in leadership that is focused on empathy and understanding for those who have duties outside of work – for instance, someone caring for an aging parent, or a new dad taking time to be with his family.

Her advice to younger women in STEM is to look for opportunities to grow professionally both inside and outside their organization. “Take the time to get involved with professional organizations. Andrea stated. “Get on a committee, and work with other professionals on a common goal – whether you’re organizing an event, or contributing to a study, it’s a great opportunity to connect with like-minded professionals and grow your own professional network. That is so valuable.”

"Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need."

Vivian Tong is an Associate | Manager, Architecture on the IBI Living+ team in Vancouver, specializing in the design of multi-family residential and mixed-use developments. She started at IBI Group in urban design and transit-oriented development, prior to moving into architecture. Vivian knew that she wanted to be an architect when she was nine years old. She had a school project to design the “perfect house” and was hooked. 

When she first started, there was an obvious lack of female leaders and mentors in the field. She believes that having female mentors and a diversity of perspectives on how they navigated through their career paths is not only important for professional development, but also for work-life balance on a personal level. ​​​​​​​

Her advice to young women in STEM is, “don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. Whether it is more challenging work, developing new skills in another related area or needing more help and guidance in what you are currently doing, ask for it.”

"Communicate well; listen, learn, speak and work as a team."

Melinda Tracey​​​​​​​ is a system analyst by trade, however, as a member of IBI’s Intelligence sector, she describes herself as an agent of change. Located in Calgary, she works on various projects as an Associate within our Transportation, Telecommunication, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Systems Engineering practices.

Melinda’s career decisions have been based upon her curiosity and tenacity. She was raised in an era which brought technological change to the workplace and she chose to delve into how these new tools worked, what they could be used for, and how they might benefit the tasks at hand. 

Her fields of study have been diverse, from horticulture to information and communication technologies (ICT) to GIS to project management. Her foundation however, has always revolved around data and its transition to organized, useful and understandable information, i.e. knowledge. 

Melinda does not feel like she has faced any unique challenges as a woman, other than those she created for herself; she thinks perhaps this stems from her upbringing within a female-dominated family. She believes that the obstacles many professionals face in navigating the STEM world, as juniors, new-comers or old-timers, is that the skills learned today are out of date tomorrow. She adds, “you have chosen a career path that, by its very existence, is often in flux. The hurdles can appear as opportunities lost, engagements passed over, ideas ignored, and advancement delayed, however these are universal to all, male or female, and it’s the shared camaraderie of the work that allows us to navigate these obstacles.” 

To young professionals in STEM she says, “communicate well; listen, learn, speak and work as a team. Be part of a team that encourages each other to find equilibrium in work, supports new experiences, identifies solutions, shares adventures, approaches challenges from new perspectives, laments the failures, celebrates the successes and enjoys the journey. As my son once said when he was a toddler, ‘I can do it myself if you help me‘.”

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