Supporting diversity and inclusion in the transportation and infrastructure sector
Women remain significantly under-represented in both post-secondary engineering programs and in the engineering profession. In Canada, just 20.6 per cent of newly licensed engineers are women, according to Engineers Canada, despite women making up more than half of the Canadian population.
While representation has increased, many individuals, companies and organizations are working to speed up the rate of progress – intensifying efforts to recruit, retain and develop more women in engineering roles at all levels, including senior leadership.
One of the leaders in promoting gender diversity is global engineering and design firm WSP. Headquartered in Montreal, with activities across Canada, WSP practices focus on engineering and the environment. The firm is highly involved in rail and transit projects, and is playing an integral role in one of Canada’s largest transit-focused infrastructure projects, as a prime team member and lead designer for the GO Rail Expansion – Union Station Enhancement Project (USEP) in Toronto.
" The presence of women leaders shows that WSP recognizes women’s contributions and cares about fostering inclusion. And that gives a lot of confidence to our female recruits and young female professionals.
WSP Vice-President, Rail and Transit, Western Canada
The challenge of recruiting women engineers is especially acute in the transportation and infrastructure sector, says Jennifer Verellen, senior vice-president, transportation systems, with WSP in Canada. “It is still very male dominated, and in Canada, one reason is the sector has only started getting considerable funding in the last couple of years.”
With a greater focus on upgrading transportation infrastructure across the country, a host of new opportunities is opening up for women and other under-represented groups, she says, adding that such potential can only be realized by making deliberate choices to welcome and support women and diverse teams.
WSP, for example, now has a number of inspiring role models for younger engineers. Most prominently among them is Marie-Claude Dumas, recently appointed CEO of WSP in Canada and WSP’s global sponsor for inclusion and diversity.
Tamsin Silvester is another leader in WSP in Canada, as vice-president, rail and transit, Western Canada. “One reason I chose engineering was I heard a female engineer talk about all the different activities she was involved in every day,” Ms. Silvester says. “I was 16 at a women in engineering-themed event, and I was inspired and excited. There are so many disciplines and specialty areas women can get involved in. Here I am, a civil engineer by training who is now managing a rail systems team.”
Ms. Silvester agrees that having a female CEO and women in other leadership roles at WSP sends an important message to younger employees about the potential to “rise up the ranks,” while also demonstrating their employer’s culture and values.
“The presence of women leaders shows that WSP recognizes women’s contributions and cares about fostering inclusion. And that gives a lot of confidence to our female recruits and young female professionals,” she says.
“At the same time, moving upward is not everyone’s goal, and it doesn’t have to be,” Ms. Silvester adds. “When we’re interviewing people, we stress all the available options for moving laterally into different groups and projects to build their skills. You can come here not knowing what you want to do in five years’ time, but the opportunities are endless.”
" Bringing women into the planning of a transit station can help ensure it is safe and inclusive. Another perspective is how does this design affect people with disabilities? Having a diverse team helps you make sure you are the doing the right thing for the public.
Vice-President, Program Management, and Program Director, Alliance, at WSP in Canada
Having diverse teams with unique perspectives is increasingly recognized as an important ingredient for achieving success in large, complex projects. The Government of Canada has recently conducted stakeholder consultations about the important principles to embed in the country’s future transit systems, as it looks to launch permanent funding for public transit, starting in 2026-27. The principles include social inclusion, environmental benefits and economic benefits for communities.
Having diverse teams can help transit-system designers support these public priorities in Canada, says Kate Borg, vice-president, program management, and program director, alliance, at WSP in Canada. She is also the design manager for the ONTrack Alliance, the proponent for executing the contract for the GO Rail Expansion – USEP.
The project represents the largest alliance contract in Canadian history, the collaborative contracting model that has been used to deliver large-scale public infrastructure projects in the U.K. and Australia for over 20 years. Ms. Borg has experience with the alliance model from work in her home country of Australia.
“Having women on a team designing transit stations and other community infrastructure is so valuable,” she says. One example she points to is safety considerations. “I asked a male colleague if he ever worried about being attacked in an underground passageway or dark section of a road. He said, ‘Never,’ and I said that I and other women worry about it all the time.
“Bringing women into the planning of a transit station can help ensure it is safe and inclusive. Another perspective is how does this design affect people with disabilities? Having a diverse team helps you make sure you are doing the right thing for the public.”
Ms. Borg says the value of diverse teams is especially evident when working in an alliance infrastructure model. “The alliance model is designed to optimize collaboration among all the contract participants,” she says. “You have different talents and different types of experts all with a seat at the table coming together to work through the issues at all stages. With great diversity on the different teams, innovation can thrive.”
In their leadership positions, WSP’s female engineers are not only helping to move Canada’s largest transit-focused infrastructure projects forward – they are reshaping the industry.
More information at We Are WSP.
Advertising feature produced by Randall Anthony Communications with Globe Content Studio and WSP Canada Inc. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.