La Société canadienne
de géotechnique
The Canadian
Geotechnical Society
La Société canadienne de géotechnique
The Canadian Geotechnical Society
The Canadian
« Back to Home

International Women in Engineering Day 2021

June 2021

International Women in Engineering Day occurs on June 23rd where the work and achievements of women engineers is celebrated. It was initially launched in the United Kingdom by the Women’s Engineering Society as a national initiative. In its eighth year, it has grown to have global reach and UNESCO patronage. The Canadian Geotechnical Society (CGS) joins industry professionals in celebrating this event.

Women represented 15% of CGS’s membership in 2018, which has grown from 6% in 2008. The percentage of women delegates is typically between 20% to 25% at the annual CGS conference. Women also contribute to the CGS at all levels from local sections to awards selection to divisions and committees to the CGS Board of Directors and Executive Committee.

In 2021, the CGS has chosen to highlight four of our women members from across a diverse spectrum. Dr. Ryley Beddoe is an Associate Professor at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ontario. Judith Bouchard is a geotechnical engineer with Hydro-Québec in Montreal, Québec. Leanne McLaren is a geotechnical engineer with Thurber Engineer in Edmonton, Alberta. Dr. Sumi Siddiqua is an Associate Professor and Associate Director of Graduate Studies at the University of British Columbia (Okanagan Campus) in Kelowna, British Columbia.


1. What got you interested in geotechnical engineering?


Ryley: My interest in geotechnical engineering was first sparked when I randomly bumped into Dr. Richard Brachman and Dr. Andy Take at a Tim Horton’s a year after I’d graduated from undergrad.  They started talking about a really neat project they were working on which was building an experimental liner test site north of Kingston, Ontario. They asked if I’d ever want to consider maybe working on a project like that and doing a masters, and before I knew it I was a fresh Master’s student in geotechnical engineering at Queen’s University.  My drive to carry on in grad school ended up being motivated by a canoe trip I took with a friend down the Missinaibi River one July. It had been a wet spring, so the river was extremely high, and landslides and shoreline erosion along the banks were prolific. This was fascinating to me and my trip photos were dominated by these features.  So I stayed on at Queen’s to do a Ph.D. in static liquefaction and landslides, and now continue my landslide research and mass wasting in permafrost.  I know many of my colleagues realized early that they had a spark and interest in geotechnical engineering, but for me it really was driven from a chance meeting at a coffee shop and a canoe trip in Northern Ontario.

Judith: When I was in high school I watched a series of shows on Canadian geology and became fascinated with the subject. I have always had a passion for hiking and knew I wanted to have an outdoorsy job. My career counselor in high school suggested geological engineering and the rest is history. I studied at École Polytechnique de Montréal and my last co-op term was with Hydro-Québec. While working there I was lucky enough to have an excellent mentor who convinced me to do my Master’s in soil mechanics with a focus on dam behavior. I am proud to be working for a company that shares my values, by producing renewable energy and fighting climate change. Because of the amazing work-life balance it provides me with, I also never had to give up my first passion and have hiked all around the world: Nepal, Peru, Myanmar, Mongolia, Laos, Indonesia to name just a few. I am now focusing on raising my little boy though the family is eager to be able to continue to explore the world.

Leanne: I did not know exactly what I wanted to do for a career though I knew that I loved geology and geomorphology. I also wanted to impact people and help build their communities, not just study rocks, so I searched online for what geology could lead to and geotechnical engineering seemed a perfect fit. It is a blend of the technical/practical side while also involving the geology that I loved. This resulted in me studying geological engineering at the University of British Columbia. I particularly found the formation of the Rockies interesting.  I got to see the results of that first-hand when moving from Vancouver to Calgary in 2015.

Sumi: My first professor in soil mechanics back in Bangladesh really connected the science with real-life issues demonstrating that geotechnical engineering is a great combination of nature and technology. The wide variation in stratigraphy was really interesting and there is a lot to learn from natural soil, while at the same time we can contribute to minimizing environmental impacts. This has lead me to study in Thailand and the United Kingdom to then Canada where I research non-traditional approaches that could reduce the carbon footprint of the construction industry. I find my work very exciting.


2. How have you been involved with CGS?


Ryley: I have been involved in CGS since I first started as a graduate student through the Kingston Section. In fact, only one month into my Master’s a last minute spot opened up at the Canadian Young Geotechnical Engineers and Geoscientists conference in Kingston (2007) and I was able to attend thanks to Peter Wu. There I was introduced to the CGS and all the amazing people that were, and still are involved.  Over my years as CGS member, I’ve gone from being a student competing in the CGS student competitions to chairing the Awards Committee for the same competition, and am currently the Chair of the Cold Regions Geotechnology Division.   Being a part of the CGS has been extremely enriching, it provides an amazing opportunity to meet fellow ‘dirt’ enthusiasts, initiate new connections and collaborations, and build lifelong friendships.  The CGS conference is also a great time for learning and seeing other people’s passion for their work. It’s always my favourite time of year, gathering for a conference in a city somewhere in Canada with the extended CGS family, and can’t wait to do it again!

Judith: I started being involved with CGS almost right after graduating 11 years ago. First with the Western Quebec local section for many years (starting as the person in charge of sodas and chips!), and afterwards at the national level as Vice-President Communications. My involvement with CGS has provided me amazing networking opportunities Canada-wide. It allowed me to stay up to date technically in my field, but also in other geotechnical fields that I would not be exposed to otherwise. The leadership and management opportunities have certainly played a huge role in being more confident at work, and allowed me to learn through both successes and mistakes on how to manage a team. I felt that I was in a safe environment to make mistakes and learn. This is especially beneficial for young engineers that do not necessarily get exposed to those kinds of responsibilities at work. Your volunteering experience will likely not result in a promotion in your job, but it will indirectly add to your value because of the soft skills you would have gained. It is essentially signing up for the school of life though in a friendly environment.

Leanne: When I was in Vancouver, I attended some local section technical presentations. After I moved to Calgary I joined the Calgary Geotechnical Society (CyGS) Executive Committee as a member-at-large, followed by venue coordinator, and then the Southern Alberta Section Director until the end of 2020. I helped put together and present the expression of interest for GeoCalgary 2020, which morphed into involvement with the local organizing committee for the GeoVirtual 2020 and GeoCalgary 2022 conferences. I also attended and presented at the young Canadian Geotechnical Engineers and Geoscientists Conference (yCGEGC) in Whistler, British Columbia, in 2016.

Commonly juniors do not really know people outside of their cubicle area or project. CyGS and CGS have allowed me to meet so many professionals that I would not have otherwise. It has also given me an opportunity to demonstrate leadership and passion in my field, and has made me more employable. I would encourage all young professionals to get involve and develop your network within the community and with the new student and young professional initiatives that are available.

Sumi: Following completing my Ph.D. in the United Kingdom, I did a post-doctorate at the University of Manitoba with Prof. James Blatz and attended my first CGS conference in 2009. It was an opportunity I will always be grateful for and where I met so many great people. Since, I have been actively volunteering with different committees in CGS including chairing the Awards Committee for CGS student competitions, Membership Committee, Chair and Section Director for Interior BC, and Geoenvironmental Division. The volunteering with the CGS and attending the annual CGS conference has allowed me to gradually build my network through connecting with industry partners, other academics, and the larger players within the industry. Additionally, interacting with the students and young professionals makes me feel like I have contributed to the career of future engineers.


3. For the mentors you’ve had, did you seek them out, or have they appeared naturally?


Ryley: I’ve been very fortunate to have a number of amazing mentors in my career that have assisted me in different capacities. Mentorship for me has mostly been situational and are people that I’m learning from, which may not be in a technical capacity. Most of these have appeared and developed naturally over time, such as my colleague or students.  In more recent years I’ve worked more at intentionally developing and seeking out mentors. This has been especially important during a year of working from home.  Overall though, mentors have been a tremendous component of my successes, a phenomenal support network to lean on when I have questions, concerns and doubts. I know I wouldn’t be where I am in my career without them.  So to all my CGS mentors reading this (and there are number of you), I thank you!

Judith: I would say a bit of both. I was hired as an intern at Hydro-Québec by Marc Smith, who was also an associate professor at Laval University, working with the NSERC/Hydro-Quebec Industrial Research Chair in Life Cycle Optimization for Embankment Dams. After my internship, I joined Hydro-Quebec where Marc convinced me to do a Master’s with him and Jean-Marie Konrad while still working full-time. He was a great mentor in my first few years and since, I have been mentored by many other senior engineers. Hydro-Quebec intentionally pairs younger engineers with senior engineers as a training program as they recognize the value of having those technical expertise in-house. Also notably, half of the technical team I am part of is women where each are specialized in a different field. We are a very tight group and I have learned a lot from them regardless of being older or younger. They may not be formal mentors, but it is an inspiring group that I know I can always count on. Mentorship does not have to be one directional, and mentors and mentees can be interchangeable.

Sumi: Mentorship is so crucial to one’s success. I would particularly emphasize the importance of mentorship especially amongst female faculty and students. Regardless of your gender, I would encourage everyone to participate in mentorship whether as a mentor or mentee. Mentors have both appeared naturally and I have sought out to them. An example of natural mentorship for me has been Prof Jim Graham from University of Manitoba who has played a key role in my career through feedback on how to get involved with industry and academia. He is an important mentor for many in our field.

Mentorship can also come naturally through institutional structures. At UBC Okanagan’s School of Engineering, mentorship comes from our inter-disciplinary collaborations, and willingness to share ideas.

In my experience, intentional mentorship is crucial to one’s success. I have reach out to specific people in the field, who are known experts, to facilitate feedback on my research. If you need advice, do not feel shy.  Reach out and get advice and feedback.


4. Is there a piece of advice you’d give to other women?


Judith: The advice I would like to share with other women, especially early in their careers is that you do not have to be 100% ready to take on a new challenge. It is okay to step outside of your comfort zone and learn on the job. Give yourself permission to make mistakes. Men commonly never question why they are given a challenge above their skill level and neither should you. I recall being put in charge of the technical review process for the ICOLD (International Commission on Large Dams) symposium that took place in Canada in 2019, while I was part of the technical committee. I had to manage 120 reviewers, plan the sessions that were covering all disciplines related to dams from around the world. The learning curve was huge, though with hard work and very little sleep I really grew professionally. I was so thankful that people put their trust in me for such a huge task so early in my career.

Sumi: Everyone should follow their passion for work regardless of societal barriers. If you are excited for your work, only then can you make an impact on your profession, industry and society. For myself, this has taken me from doing my Bachelors in Bangladesh to moving around the world to pursue geoenvironmental engineering. At the time, I felt that I needed to learn from experts around the world so I could contribute to the profession and never thought about the barriers of being a single woman. I was also fortunate to have a very supportive family, and my supervisor in the United Kingdom still reads my articles and e-mails me to tell me he is proud.


5. How can young professional maximize their opportunities?


Leanne: The key is to be involved and be present. Young professionals tend to sit together when they go to events but participating and being present does not mean just showing up. It actually means to participate, talk to people, and meet new people. A good target is to try to meet someone new at each event you go to. It takes some guts, but you should walk up to people that you do not know and introduce yourself. Be prepared with a 15 second elevator pitch on who you are and what you do, and then have some questions prepared for them to engage in a conversation. I got most of my jobs by networking and just talking to people. If there is one key point I would like to pass on to young professionals it is: “There is a geotechnical community, and it is so important to be a part of it and use it. It is there for us.”


6. What advice would you have for your younger self?


Ryley: Keep digging until you find the dirt you love, and never say never as you may be surprised at where opportunities take you. I nearly went out of engineering, but a chance encounter lead me to graduate school and becoming a professor. I feel as though I have the greatest job in the world where I get to teach the next generation, be curious, always ask questions and seek answers, travel, and on top of all that, be paid to do all of it! And my final piece of advice for my younger self would be that it is okay to ask yourself if the current situation is the right one.  By asking and giving it some thought, you could realize that the right one may be in a different company, industry or field, and that’s ok.

Leanne: It’s never too late to go back to school to direct your career toward something you love or to round out your skills because you have the rest of your life to work and it should be in something that you have passion for. Early in my career I focused on developing my soft skills, such as network building, leadership and attending events, though in hindsight I would have liked to spend more time reading technical papers and learning new software that would benefit my technical work and my employer. This was one of the main reasons for me going back to complete my master’s in 2020.

International Women in Engineering Day 2021.pdf