Welcome to Women Who Innovate, a podcast series presented by Randstad Canada as part of their Women Transforming The Workplace program. We explore winning strategies for navigating the ever-evolving labour market through a series of thought-provoking inspiring interviews with bold and passionate women who are shaping the workplaces off tomorrow. Hi, I’m your host Marie-Noelle Morency, and today it’s my pleasure to introduce you to Gina Cody, a true Canadian engineer trailblazer. We hope you enjoy this episode.
Marie-Noelle: First, I'd like to ask: did you always know you wanted to be an engineer?
Gina: Since I was a child, I was always a fixer. If the table was broken, the TV wasn't working, the radio was broken... I always wanted to fix them. So maybe that was something in my DNA since I was a child as a fixer. And that told me: Oh my god, your future is in engineering and if you want to fix things, you are an engineer by nature.
Marie-Noelle: And were your parents behind you with that career choice?
Gina: My parents were quite a source of encouragement for me. My father was opinionated on the fact that women and men are equal, and they should do similar things and you have to be a trailblazer. You have to do stuff that not that many women do. It’s not because you're not capable, it's just not the norm. So, he was a strong believer, and his dream was for me to be an engineer. So, I had a lot of encouragement. Yes.
Marie-Noelle: So, I guess that's the key also.. it really helps if your entourage is behind you, supporting you and your choices. That's much harder if you feel like you're alone in that path. Right?
Gina: Absolutely. I think the parents and teachers in elementary school have a big input in what our future generation will be. So, the more encouragement we get from parents given to their children, the better those children will be. I have met many women who say they wanted to be engineers and unfortunately, their parents discouraged them. And that is the trend that I'm hoping we can change.
Marie-Noelle: I couldn't agree more. The stats are there to show it, like there's still not a lot of women engineers and a lot of female students in engineering, that’s still a very low percentage.
So hopefully we can change that trend with examples like yours. Your career started in Toronto, where you started as a crane inspector, which is very unique. So, you were at the time the only woman to be assigned such a role. So, what was it like to be a woman engineer back then? I'm guessing you were one of the very, very few.
Gina: Absolutely and I think it had its own positives and negatives. To me, the most important thing is to make the negative become a positive. The negative was that I was the only woman. People didn't trust me. They expected me to fail. And the positive side was when I proved them wrong they always remembered me because I was the only woman. They would remember my name, where I worked. All of that gave me an advantage because now they knew who I was for who I really was, not by my gender. So, they trusted my decisions and respected me for that. It was not easy. I was the only woman and being the only woman, their eyes are on you. So, you have to work hard, you have to make sure you do not make mistakes. The tolerance for mistakes is almost zero. You can’t be wrong. You have to be prepared. You have to go to a meeting completely ready to answer questions.
Marie-Noelle: So, what you are saying is that you were held to different standards? You were held to a higher standard because you were a woman?
Gina: Absolutely. I always believed, and I still do, for a woman to be considered equal, in a male-dominated area of practice, they have to be better to be accepted as equal. That has always been my equation and I accepted it. And that made me a better person and work harder and I think that comes as a solution to a problem. Just work hard, persevere. They will accept you and then they will respect you.
Marie-Noelle: That leads me to the focus of our program this year: unconscious biases.
For example, there was a research from Harvard with over 200,000 participants saying that 76% of the respondents, both men and women, are gender biased and tend to think that men are better-suited for some careers and women are better suited as homemakers. I'm surprised that this bias still exists, but obviously, gender bias is still very strong. Whether it's conscious or even unconscious, which can be even more dangerous because we don't recognize it, we don't see it. Are you surprised that we still have these gender biases? And have you concretely experienced them throughout your career?
Gina: I'm not surprised at all because you see, there are generations that don't believe women belong and still there are many people, even in the developed countries, that are questioning the fact that we have women entering the engineering and computer science and STEM programming field is evidence of that bias that has been from childhood going on. And as you mentioned, unconscious bias is quite dangerous because people think that they are very progressive, they are allowing women, but in the back of their mind, they always question ‘Are they capable? Are they good enough?’ And I think the way to overcome that is for women to have confidence in themselves and think ‘Yes, I am good enough. Yes, I am smart enough. Yes, I am strong enough to be in the field that is, at the present time, male dominated.’ In 10 years time, the figures are going to change, the statistics hopefully be completely opposite. If we look at the medicine and doctors. That field took a while, we did have probably very few women entering into medicine programs decades ago and a century ago. Probably they were non-existent. They accepted them as nurses but not as doctors, so that got changed. And now if you go to hospitals, you would be surprised by the percentage of women and in universities, the percentage of women has increased drastically. And I'm hoping that the same thing will happen in STEM programs. It has to start from childhood, and it has to happen for the gender to be successful and equal and accepted as equal.
Marie-Noelle: Well, especially in STEM. One of the biggest unconscious biases that we hear is that women are not as good with numbers.
I don't know where that comes from, but it is still a bias that we hear and I don't think it's as conscious as it is unconscious. But we're used to thinking that women are naturally less inclined to be good with numbers. Obviously, it's absolutely not true and we can't prove that at all. But it's still one example where we do need to consciously fight that bias because it prevents women having the confidence to go into STEM fields.
Gina: Yes, there are two issues. One is the strength in numbers. If we are more in the STEM fields, it proves the whole bias wrong. So maybe they can face that but for that to happen, we need to start from childhood. We need to start encouraging the girls and young women to get into math programs, in science programs. You have to make the programs more fun. Our education system hasn't changed. The same thing that I was taught 40 years ago, 50 years ago, the same things are being taught today. They have to change the way we teach so that physics and chemistry are fun. We have to encourage high school kids to take, for example, physics classes. Because physics is hard we say, ‘okay you're young, you don't have to take it.’ Then they can’t get into an engineering program. The obstacle has already been put forward against them. One of my biggest fears is that we are in the post-industrial revolution. The whole economy of the world is reliant on artificial intelligence, Internet of Things, advanced manufacturing. All of these subject matters require a knowledge of the STEM field and computer science, engineering, math. So, if our women don't get into those fields at various stages in the next decades, they are not only falling behind, they will be further behind from the current time. That's a fear I have for our young women and girls.
Marie-Noelle: Yeah, and with the population getting older, there are some critical labour shortages that are coming. We cannot do without women. Of course, they are fifty percent of the population.
So, we do need them as skilled workers in those specific fields and we cannot do without them. So, we need to accelerate that process. I totally agree. And is there a way, is there a difference in the way girls and boys learn? Is there a key there where we try to standardize what we teach our boys and girls? Is there a different way to learn that we could leverage?
Gina: I don't believe so. I think boys and girls learn the same way. The main issue is when they are told that you're not good at something and believing that. If you're told that you are good at it, we also believe in that. It's that encouragement that makes a person enter a program. So if parents tell their daughter that, ‘Engineering is for your brother, not for you. You should get into other programs.’ Then for sure the kids follow the advice that is given to them and that advice, in this day and era, is not appropriate. I think people, girls and boys, should do what they love and what they enjoy, and they should not be discouraged from entering the same programs. But also following up on your question: when a girl is born, if we start pushing them on boys and issues that are more girly and nurturing, which is fine, as a woman, we are nurturing people because we give birth to children, but it gives the boys all the technical toys and takes it away from the girls. It's some encouragement and unconscious bias that we, as parents, have already built into our children. So that has to change as well.
Marie-Noelle: As you say it's exposure. Because I'm in this program, I'm starting to think way more about this. I have a little girl and, of course, we tend to offer her dolls and stuff like that.
At Christmas, I bought her a little toolbox with a hammer and a screwdriver. You know, what sweetie, you can help your father with these things. So it's about exposure, and yes, and sending them to the science class and not just dance class. Again that goes back to unconscious biases. I never thought of that consciously but because of this program and that we talk about it so much, I really consciously made the choice to buy her something that's more masculine or associated with a masculine trait and buy her a toolbox and she's super happy.
Gina: Absolutely and I always tell my friends that actually the biggest and best chefs and famous chefs are men. However, in the household, we always expect all the women to do the cooking. So, this is an unconscious bias. That women are better than men at cooking. Not really. Men can be as good at cooking as women are, as proven by the fact that the great chefs are men. So that is the full unconscious bias the other way, as well.
Marie-Noelle: Yeah, so we have to break this cycle and try different things. You eventually became CEO of the company, which was named, in 2013, one of the best managed organizations in the country.
And in 2010, you were named one of Canada's top 10 most influential women entrepreneurs by Profit magazine. So, obviously you are a very successful leader. How would you describe your leadership style? What makes a good leader and, as a leader, how do you manage these unconscious biases as a woman, if you see them?
Gina: I believe a good leader is a good listener. And works within a team rather than on top of the team. You provide guidance at the same time you listen to your colleagues and staff because they have great ideas. They bring in improvements, and by listening and implementing them, you encourage your staff to come up with better ideas and better input and make your company a better place. And also, when you are in a position where your staff feel part of the organization, they get satisfaction so it’s both ways. I used to say, this is one of the quotes given by me, I said: ‘I never say I, I always say we.’ I think it's a very, very important thing that we never refer to ourselves as I, because I am nobody without people around me, who help me become who I am. So good leadership advice from me is to include everyone and listen.
Marie-Noelle: As a leader, have you observed within your teams, or have you been able to install something different from the get-go? Have you seen some unconscious biases going on in your teams? Because you would have a mix of women and men engineers. Have you seen some of these and were you able to address these challenges?
Gina: I was obviously pro-women, not because of a gender issue. I believe they were great engineers. If I could find them. But the issue was that when the pool is very small, your ability to pull from the pool is also minimized. I believe in women and I don't think I would ever allow people in my organization to be disrespectful to women. Having said that, if you have ever gone to a construction site or even in my own lab at our office. For example, at Christmas, gifts were given to most construction offices with women in bikinis and pictures that were quite inappropriate, in my opinion, and it's on a calendar that is hung on the wall of a business. But you would see that quite often. I had to remind them that they have to take it and bring it down and it's quite inappropriate. The more they hear that inappropriateness, they react so, yes, it was there, it had to be confronted, but the women who worked with me at my office, I think they were given, I hope I gave them enough encouragement to stand on their feet and because they were good. It’s not because they were women, they were just brilliant engineers.
Marie-Noelle: Yeah, so it was a constant. You have to keep an eye on it at all times.
Gina: Absolutely. I believe… I wouldn't say it’s a struggle, rather that it's a requirement that we have to consciously remember and remind people that they are here to stay, you're not going anywhere, and you have to accept it.
Marie-Noelle: Do you think that women can do it all? Like is it possible for a woman today to have a great career?
To work the long hours, to have a family, and do everything at the same time? What is the key to successfully integrating the two and, god knows, like there are a lot of women that are struggling with work-life balance and trying to juggle their careers and their family at the same time? There’s huge responsibilities from both sides. How do you successfully integrate the two? What's your experience on this?
Gina: First of all, yes, it is possible. I'm an example. There are many many examples like me, better than me, more successful than me. So yes, women can be successful and do it all. I had two daughters. They grew up. They're both educated, successful at what they do. So, to answer the first question, yes, it is possible to balance work and life. How to overcome it? It’s true to partnership, in reality, not just in the word. I believe fathers love their children, daughters and sons, the same way as the mothers do. But, we as women, feel strongly that we are responsible for household chores. We are responsible to choose what we have for dinner, we are responsible for taking care of the children and their schooling and their education and on and on and on. We don't share the burden with our partners. So, if you take the burden away from your partner, you're putting it on your own shoulders so you are making the weight heavier on yourself. So, if, as a woman, you want to be successful in your business, in your area of practice, you have to realize that you are in partnership for good, not for words. So, the parenting, caring for the household and children are divided equally, not based on what you feel and the job that is imposed on you by the past generation. And if you want to stay at home and take care of children, that's hard work and should be respected for what it is. But it's your choice, not that you are quitting your job because you feel you have to.
Marie-Noelle: That's very true. But I think it's also coming from us sometimes, that we do have to let go of these things and really trust our partner to do the cooking, to do he household chores. And let them evolve in that field as well.
Gina: That is perfectly said. I think some burden is on us and I think it's a guilt that is given to us by, probably our parents, and the way we were brought up. And I encourage companies, and a lot of progressive companies are encouraging men to take time off. Also, when women go for interviews. I believe there is an unconscious bias during the interview that we are not going to give the promotion to this woman because she is going to take time off for maternity. They never think that the male counterpart is going to take time off or is going to leave for another job. You're not going to give him the promotion. They always have it in the back of their mind. And the other thing is you are living in the digital and technological advancement period, where a woman goes away for 18 months, and I always make the joke that the 5G becomes 6G and you’re completely out and don't know what has happened. So, you need to stay engaged and you can't be that much away from work if you want to be part of the workforce in the future.
Marie-Noelle: That's very true. And I think the participation of men in parental leave is one major key to gender parity, that's for sure. That allows women to, again, go back to work sooner.
It’s easier to get back in it and go back to what we're doing and engage with projects. So, I think yeah, having men more involved in the parental leave and taking more leave is definitely a positive thing for gender parity, for sure. So, I'm hoping to see that trend going up even more as we go. So, you were talking about the technological changes and those are happening at such a fast pace. How do you see your profession evolving? What are the opportunities for the next generation of engineers, especially for female engineers? What excites you or drives you about the future in your area?
Gina: As I mentioned, we are in the fourth Industrial Revolution. For the first time in history, physical strength is not going to give a person an advantage in getting a job. Your brain and your ability to perform is what sets you apart from your colleagues. So, the world has never been more prepared for having equal opportunity for both men and women. For that reason, I think we have never felt the need for women to get into the STEM program as much as we do now, because our whole industry is reliant on people who are technologically-savvy, who are in the field of STEM: science, technology, engineering, math. So, women have to get into these programs, and they have to immerse themselves in the knowledge that they gain. So later on they can be part and participate in the evolution that is there for humanity to receive. Also, I believe we need to be part of this evolution because the industry and everything is built by people for people. So, if women are not part of our advancement, then everything that is built will be built for those who are making them. So, we need to be part of it. So, make sure that there is also gender balance in the usage and provision.
Marie-Noelle: As you’re saying, that’s a question that’s going on for AI. Are the algorithms gender-balanced, if it's only men behind the programming? Of course, they will be, so we do need some.
Gina: Absolutely. AI, Artificial Intelligence, Internet of Things, advancement, all of that has to be built by both. I always focus on this, as well, but we cannot forget about other genders. We have to teach our children that binary issues are over. There is a segment of society that may not be male or female. The LGBTQ+ communities and more. They are all part of our society and we cannot forget about the minorities. We have to build for minorities, for those who are different from us, and don't look like us, don't act like us, but they are humans, and they are part of this society. So, all of that, that inclusion and diversity, has never been more important than it is now because the world is connected. We are living in one world. Nationalities, colours, ethnicities, genders really don't matter anymore. Because we connect throughout the world in fractions of seconds. So, we are living in one world. We cannot segregate ourselves. We cannot close our doors and say that this is our nation, and this is our colour, and this is our language, and this is our religion. Those times hopefully will be behind us. It's not going to happen easily. It will need a lot of input from many, many people.
Marie-Noelle: And at the end of the day, we all speak human, and we all speak tech.
Gina: Yes, algorithms are the same. Every language. Absolutely. That is what makes the world become one. And people have to open up to the reality of today's economy. And today's culture.
Marie-Noelle: Concordia University's Engineering Faculty is the first in Canada to be named after a woman, you, Gina Cody.
That is an exceptional accomplishment and that will certainly inspire young female students in engineering, especially, as I was saying, still only 20% of engineering students are women. So, do you think that we do enough to encourage our girls to go into STEM fields? And looking at the future, how do you want to inspire young girls to explore engineering, like, what do you have to say to them if they show an interest or a talent, or if they have that curiosity about STEM fields. How do you inspire them?
Gina: I still can’t believe it, that Gina Cody School of Engineering and Computer Science is the first in Canada and, believe it or not, it's the first of its kind in the world, that, in 2018, that this happened. That no other engineering and computer science faculty that you can find in the world, a combined faculty, is named after a woman. So, I am hoping that, in my small way, I’m sending a message that young women and girls do belong in engineering and when they enter university, it is not for men, it's for women too. They belong there. And that’s the message I wanted to send out. In the fourth industrial revolution, we are needed because we know that, by 2030, Canada is going to be short by something around 100,000 engineers, because baby boomers will retire, people like me will retire, and also half of the population is not entering engineering and computer science programs. We cannot rely on immigration because the whole world now needs educated engineers and computer scientists. So, where are they going to come from? It's got to come from our pool of women. So, Canada needs it. Our economy needs it. So, this is not just for gender balance and the sake of gender balance that it’s a must. It's for our economy to survive and be one of the best and advanced countries in the world. We need young women and girls to enter engineering and computer science. And that's the message I wanted to send. We need to do more. Are we doing enough? I don't believe we're doing enough because we had been talking about it for the sake of talking. That is not going to create action. Because we see for the past decade there has been talks, but it has not improved the numbers. So, we need to take action more seriously and do talks in high schools and try to get engagement younger. And get the youth in programs for children to come to school and go to different engineering and summer camps. Practice engineering and try it, as women. So that they realize engineering is fun, engineering is something that their future is dependent on and they should be part of it. So that is the notion that I'm encouraging all universities, all high schools, all parents to tell themselves to encourage their young children, both girls and boys, to get into engineering and get into computer programs and STEM, and also remind our young women and children and girls that they are good enough. They are smart enough. They are strong enough and they are capable.
Marie-Noelle: Do you think that the MeToo movement is also helping young women realize that they have a voice, and that they need to stand up for themselves? Do you think that helps in some ways to empower them?
Gina: Absolutely. I think the notion of the MeToo movement has brought to centre the act and behaviours that are accepted by both men and women, for decades, in the workforce, in gyms, everywhere. Men are allowed to say and do what they want. And it is funny and it’s macho and it's acceptable. And now, we are sending a message that no, it's not acceptable. No, we are not going to put up with derogatory comments and it's a notion that relies on both men and women to stand up when, in the locker room, a man makes a derogatory remark against their female colleagues, against someone. I always make the notion that you don't just defend your sister and mother and your close friend, you defend any woman, because you're defending humanity as a whole. By listening and not saying anything, you are helping that whole notion to carry on. We are in a world where Presidents, Prime Ministers, people feel that it is okay and acceptable to make derogatory remarks about women in locker rooms or among themselves. It's not acceptable. We don't make those remarks about men. I don't believe that when you go to locker rooms, we make derogatory remarks. So that should also be about men, too. So, we need the MeToo movement as a whole. I think it has been an evolution for women's liberty, women’s freedom as a whole, to stand for the rights and not to be a victim of issues that really have nothing to do with them and all to do with your other side.
Marie-Noelle: Gina Cody, you had an exemplary career path. A very impressive one. Do you have a piece of professional advice? What are your words of wisdom for young professional women who want to succeed in both their family, their careers? What’s the one piece of advice that you would tell them?
Gina: Something that my mother told me when I was a child. Her advice to me was: the only passage for a woman into independence is through higher education and knowledge. So my advice to my female friends and colleagues is pursue knowledge, never give up knowledge and education. Go as high as you can, because that gives you an avenue to succeed and one of the issues that helped me was because I had a PhD in engineering, because people said Doctor Cody to me and that was a notion that an institution has already put the stamp of approval and acceptance of me as a woman engineer. So, if you are an engineer, you have a PhD, or you have a Masters and are educated, an institution has given you a stamp of approval, that makes it easier for the other part of society to accept you. And for your independence, you need that education.
Marie-Noelle: Gina Cody, thank you very much for that very inspiring and enlightening conversation.
Gina: It was a pleasure and I hope we can have a moment, an era, where the whole gender equality would be a thing of the past.