The FIDIC women pioneering change in the engineering and construction industry

07 Mar 2024

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International Women's Day on Friday 8 March is a celebration of women’s achievements, a call to action for gender equality and a reminder of the remarkable progress made by women in various fields worldwide. In the engineering and construction industry, where women have traditionally been underrepresented, there’s a growing momentum towards inclusivity and diversity.

As the global association for the engineering consulting sector, FIDIC recognises the importance of showcasing the invaluable contributions of women within its organisation and amongst its stakeholders. In the article below, key figures in FIDIC, all influential women across the industry, offer their views on gender and inclusivity and highlight the positive steps that are being taken to improve things in the industry.

Leading by example

Catherine Karakatsanis, FIDIC President

What motivated FIDIC to prioritise gender diversity and inclusion within the organisation?

As a global and diverse organisation, it is only natural that FIDIC should want to promote and prioritise diversity at all levels of the organisation. We know that we are working in an industry sector that historically has not had the best record when it comes to gender balance and therefore it is important that the industry’s representative body is seen to be addressing this challenge head on. Over recent years, we have increased the number of women involved in FIDIC’s committees and advisory councils and taken steps at the board level to promote women and we will continue to do this. We still have a way to go but I know that the issue of gender diversity and inclusion is firmly on our agenda and it will remain so in the months and years ahead.

How do you envision the role of women evolving within FIDIC in the coming years?

We will see more women taking on leading roles in the organisation and I hope that this will reflect a greater role for women in our industry too. More women are needed in engineering and construction because the industry is an essential one in securing health, safety and economic prosperity around the world and to do this effectively, the industry must actively engage the best minds and we need to ensure a strong core of potentially different views and ways of thinking. That means ensuring more women are joining and staying in the industry and also leading it as well. If we get that right, society will prosper as a result.

What advice would you give to other organisations looking to foster gender equality in traditionally male-dominated sectors?

Firstly, look around you. Is your organisation a diverse and inclusive one? It will be easy to spot if it isn’t, especially at the leadership level. Is the working environment one that is enabling to women to not just do their jobs but also progress through the organisation and take on leadership roles should they so wish? If not, then take steps to correct that. Talk to the women in your organisation and find out what they think – you might be surprised at what they say, but by involving them in a conversation you will find it easier to make progress. It is crucial for organisations to create a more equitable, inclusive and supportive environment for all engineers, including women, so that we empower and elevate them to be the best that they can be in our industry.

Driving change locally

Helen Davidson, CEO of ACE New Zealand

What specific steps has your association taken to promote gender diversity and inclusion?

In 2018, ACE New Zealand joined forces with Engineering New Zealand and The New Zealand Institute of Architects to create the Diversity Agenda, a movement to help engineering and architecture firms become more diverse and inclusive through awareness, empowerment and action. We have 160 firms signed up to the cause, and the chief executives of 60 of those organisations have made a personal leadership commitment through the Diversity Agenda Accord, (https://diversityagenda.org/accord/) which holds them to account. Our goals include that all firms have a diversity and inclusion strategy, they’re developing their cultural competence in ea o Māori and have a plan to close the gender pay equity gap +/- 1%.

Can you share any success stories or examples of women excelling in leadership roles within your association?

Left to right: Ceinwen McNeil (president, Aurecon), Helen Davidson (chief executive, ACE New Zealand), Andrea Rickard (vice president, Beca), at the ACE New Zealand conference, Wellington, in 2023.

Our association first admitted women to membership in the mid-1990s and is now led by three women – myself, as the first female chief executive, our president and our vice president. Our two general managers are also women and we’re mothers with young children. I think we provide an excellent example of women excelling in leadership roles in our association. It’s important for associations to walk the talk and we work hard to continually promote and support women in the sector. At every step we ask ourselves whether we’re aligning with our values – are our conference panels diverse or is there diversity among the volunteers we’re putting forward for opportunities? You can’t be it if you can’t see it!

What challenges have you encountered in your efforts to empower women in the engineering sector and how have you addressed them?

Unfortunately there are still many barriers and while we are doing better at attracting women into the professions, we are still losing them at an unacceptable rate. This is why the retention of women is a key focus for us. Feedback from several women in our industries and the research points to the importance of role models and creating inclusive and equitable cultures where women can move into leadership. So, this year the Diversity Agenda will home in on this, setting clear targets to increase women in leadership.

How do you collaborate with FIDIC and other stakeholders to further advance gender equality initiatives?

Our Diversity Agenda programme director Charlotte Downes contributes to the FIDIC Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Advisory Council, where she is helping build and share resources to support FIDIC member associations with their DEI journeys. At a stakeholder level, we collaborate with other associations locally, we unapologetically advocate for gender equity and our door is always open to help others. Please reach out if you want to find out more about our work – together, we are stronger.

Shaping the future of engineering

Michele Kruger, Function General Manager for Water and Environment, SMEC

What motivated you to pursue a career in engineering and what challenges have you faced as a woman in the industry?

Seeing a very complicated roads engineering project unfolding in my area inspired me to study engineering. In the end, I decided on the water field in order to help communities and change lives. I am very collaborative by nature, however the challenge is that also means that some have tried taking advantage of it and have confused kindness with weakness. However, this same collaborate attitude has reaped more results than any punitive measures I have seen others use.

How does your firm support women's professional development and advancement opportunities?

Surbana Jurong (SMEC’s holding company) is so serious about equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging (EDIB), they have created a council of excellence on the subject, which I chair. The council plays a pivotal role across the organisation with inputs across the global leadership activities, including ensuring fair representation of women across the company and in management positions.

Can you share any experiences where diversity and inclusion have contributed to improved outcomes on engineering projects?

Often diversity and inclusion are seen as onerous or tick box exercises, where in fact it is one of the largest contributors to increased revenue and cashflow. The more engaged people are on projects, the better innovation, collaboration, synergy and productivity is enjoyed on the project. That leads to improved engagement by the clients and stakeholders, resulting in successful projects and happy, thriving communities.

What advice would you give to young women considering a career in engineering?

Engineering is a very powerful channel where you can have a massive impact on improving your community and those living in lesser fortunate communities. Keep your focus on those people, as those are your ultimate clients who you serve.

Empowering the next generation

LaToya Ouna, Independent Consultant and member of the FIDIC Future Leaders Advisory Council

What inspired you to pursue a career in engineering and what are your aspirations within the industry?

I embarked on the path of engineering due to my affinity for challenges. Initially, it wasn’t my primary career choice, as my father’s occupation as a railway engineer didn’t particularly captivate me during my formative years. However, as I matured, I began to appreciate the profound dedication and fulfillment inherent in the field. Engineering has since become an integral part of my identity and I am deeply committed to advancing its practice. My aspirations extend to elevating engineering standards in Africa to a globally recognised level. I envision my firm establishing branches worldwide, competing on the global stage with distinction, innovation and excellence. Ultimately, I aim to provide unique engineering solutions that address the daily challenges faced, embodying the core ethos of our profession.

Have you encountered any barriers or biases as a young woman in the engineering field and how have you overcome them?

Challenges are ubiquitous in all walks of life, particularly in professions such as engineering, traditionally dominated by men. In my experience, women in engineering face additional hurdles stemming from systemic biases that limit their access to decision-making positions. The nature of engineering work itself often presents obstacles, from on-site conditions to basic necessities like appropriate protective gear, which can disadvantage women. Initially, I encountered setbacks and was relegated to desk-based roles while my male counterparts pursued fieldwork, impeding my career progress. However, I confronted these challenges head-on. Unable to secure opportunities to oversee construction projects, I established my firm, seizing roles where I could manage and supervise projects as director, alongside experienced engineers who shared my vision. Subsequently, I leveraged my desk-based experience to excel in procurement and contract management roles, turning adversity into advantage.

How important is mentorship in your career journey and have you had access to mentorship opportunities?

Mentorship has been integral to my professional journey, although initially, direct mentorship opportunities were scarce. In the nascent stages of my career, I forged my own path, seeking guidance from peers where possible. As I progressed, I encountered mentors at every turn, each offering unique insights and support tailored to my evolving needs. I found that mentorship is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor; rather, it encompasses various forms, including business, professional and leadership mentoring. Mentorship is indispensable to career advancement, facilitating growth and development. I am encouraged by the emergence of structured mentorship programmes in my country, such as "She for She" for women engineers, alongside discipline-specific initiatives. These programmes offer invaluable support to aspiring engineers, ensuring a legacy of excellence and continuity in our profession.

The experiences shared by Helen, Michele and Latoya above, highlight both the progress made but also the challenges in achieving gender equality in the engineering industry. FIDIC's commitment to fostering inclusivity underscores the importance of collective efforts in driving change. As we move forward, it is incumbent on the whole industry to learn from these stories, amplify diverse voices, draw inspiration and work relentlessly together towards a more equitable future for the engineering and construction industry.

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