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WSP STEM leader shares advice for aspiring female engineers

WSP STEM leader shares advice for aspiring female engineers

 March 02, 2021

Marie-Claude Dumas is WSP's Global Director of Major Projects and Programs and an Executive Market Leader in Quebec. She is also a Global Sponsory of Diversity & Inclusion.

Marie-Claude explains how she got started in STEM, where she picked up a passion for gender balance, and what would be her words of wisdom for aspiring female engineers.

Why did you become an engineer?

To be honest, when I graduated from high school, I wasn’t completely sure what I wanted to do. I liked math and sciences and I knew that I didn’t want to pursue a medical career, which was the career I associated with sciences. Once I learned about the field of engineering, I was intrigued, so I enrolled at Polytechnique here in Montreal. It was there that I explored not just the academic side of engineering but also the technical/project side. I also learned about the positive impact that my work could have and made cherished memories. For example, I got to travel to Ecuador with 9 other students from Polytechnique to construct irrigation canals for a small village; this was one of my first experiences with seeing a project from beginning to end and it took place outside of the traditional classroom setting. 

What do you enjoy most about this field? 

I enjoy so many things about my field, but the aspect that brings me the most pride is the fact that my work is extremely rewarding. For example, I was the deputy project manager on the Sainte-Justine Hospital project in Montreal in 2012-2013, which also happens to be the hospital where my children were born. It’s amazing to see the results of our work and know that we are making a difference in people’s lives, improving their quality of life. Another great thing about the world of engineering, which is really a world of projects, is that every day is different. I love the fact that I get to work on projects that take me to different settings around the world and allow me the opportunity to work in different markets and to meet different people. 

How would you summarize your career in a few words? 

If I had to use a couple of key words to describe my career, they would be passion and determination. I took a slightly untraditional path after finishing my Bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering. While I did complete a Master’s degree in Engineering at Polytechnique immediately afterwards, I then decided to pursue an MBA at HEC Montreal after working for a couple of years. Throughout my career, I have worked in many different operational roles, including different project positions, management of business units, but also roles in business support functions, such as finance and HR. In other words, I had gained experience on both the technical side and the corporate side of engineering. I was able to combine my interest in science and engineering with my managerial skills, successfully navigating both worlds, which ultimately led me to the position I hold now at WSP.  

What was the most defining moment in your career so far? 

I can’t exactly pinpoint one defining moment in my career, but I see it more as a series of moments that led me to where I am today. It was a combination of seizing opportunities created by my employers and those that I had to create for myself. I spent a lot of time selling my skills and proving that I was more than capable of taking on line roles, such as Project Manager, that would typically go to men. When I was asked to take on staff roles, such as Human Resources, I accepted to do so and I have learned a lot but I always made sure that the door remained open for me to come back and take on the line positions for which I was striving. 

What are some barriers in your career to date?  

Throughout my career, I came to realize that organizations, as well as the broader STEM field, have unconscious biases. This means that as women, we must work harder than our male peers to create our own opportunities in line positions. However, companies are now realizing that they have a responsibility to give women equal opportunities for professional development. 

What opportunities exist for women in STEM fields?  

All the opportunities exist for women in STEM fields. Women are welcomed across industries, from artificial intelligence, to manufacturing, to engineering. Things are changing, but company leaders need to be fully on board for gender balance to take full effect. When building teams, it’s important to include people from different backgrounds, because diversity in team members’ thinking will bring about innovative solutions and will avoid blind spots. At WSP, we always look at complex challenges from different angles, but to deliver holistic, forward-thinking solutions, we need to hire and equally develop diverse groups of engineers. 

What would you say to young girls interested in pursuing STEM careers? 

The world needs more engineers! There are many challenges awaiting young engineers, it’s a fascinating profession and you are the ones holding the solutions. Of course, I am biased, but I think a Bachelor’s degree in Engineering is a great undergraduate degree if you want to be a problem solver because it’s all about finding innovative solutions to society’s biggest problems. There are so many different paths that you can take as an engineer; we work in many fields, such as biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, and aerospace, and this degree will open all kinds of doors for young girls. 

Why did you agree to be Diversity and Inclusion Sponsor at WSP? 

I feel very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to foster the necessary change that we want to see in our industry. I accepted the Sponsor role because I know that our Global President and CEO, Alexandre L’Heureux, believes in the importance and truly sees the value of diversity and inclusion. For him, it is not a matter of political correctness and he knows that there is a gap in our business. I look forward to supporting him and working with our leaders to build the “teams of tomorrow”. These diverse teams will provide fresh perspectives, leading to innovative solutions that will ultimately help society thrive. 

What is your first objective in this role?

I first want to acknowledge what WSP has already done around D&I. With a Gender Balance initiative launched in 2016 and ambitious goals set out in our 2019-2021 Global Strategic Plan, we have begun the necessary work to ensuring that women are given the opportunities they deserve within the industry. However, women are just one facet of diversity & inclusion; my role is to ultimately help engender the large-scale diversity that is needed in STEM fields.  

One of my main objectives in this role is to work with our regions to look at how we can diversify our leadership teams, because real change starts at the top. In the long-term, D&I needs to be woven into the criteria for building our project teams and management teams; leaders need to look at where opportunities for development can be provided. A career is not a ladder, it’s a subway map. We need to nurture diversity from within our organization, giving everyone the opportunities that they deserve. This may take them to a higher position or even a different team within the organization. In other words, we need to have a wider view of development and promote diverse candidates from within our company, rather than simply hiring from the outside. 

I often hear that “if we put a woman in charge, she needs to be the right one, she needs to deliver and she can’t fail because it will make things harder for women to take on leadership positions”.  I agree that we need to put competent candidates in charge, male or female, but we need to stop watching women's failures so carefully.  When a man in charge fails or loses money, we never hesitate for a second to replace him by another man.  Women should be treated the same way. I would love to see progress towards removing this double standard. 

What advice would you give your past self? 

I’d say have fun! Choose projects that you believe in and don’t compromise on your core values. Hard work is not hard work if you are passionate about what you do. When you work on a project that makes a difference in the world, you want to do more. It is very gratifying work for everyone on the team. 

I would also tell myself to make sure that you are taking care of your mental and physical well-being. Juggling a career and a personal life can sometimes get overwhelming, so make sure to unplug and recharge your batteries from time to time. 

How do you see women engineers shaping the world? 

I don’t like to generalize, but the way I see women shaping the world is by getting involved in decision-making at their companies. The first step to achieving gender balance in STEM industries is by giving women a seat at the table where major decisions are being made. The doors are open, we just need to step through them!

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