Creating more equitable work environments for women should be pursued as an end goal not just because it will lead to business-related benefits but because it is the right thing to do. It is true that inclusion, diversity and equity are key to unlocking business innovation and inspiring progress. However, introducing change to create a gender-inclusive culture is not only essential for business but is also a fundamental moral cause!
In the engineering field, women have been historically underrepresented, both globally and regionally. Only 28% of engineers around the world are women, according to a 2021 report by UNESCO. This has to change!
At WSP Middle East, we have many inspiring changemakers who are challenging the status quo and encouraging others to follow their lead. From female engineers leading projects to male colleagues supporting women's inclusion, the stories of these extraordinary individuals offer a unique perspective on how we can all make an impact in creating a more equitable future.
In this article, we will explore the journeys of three of these changemakers and how they have impacted the world around them through their work.
Setting an example by surfing the waves of water
From the shores of the UK to Qatar’s golden dunes, Helen Bali has an inspiring story about how she navigated her way into engineering and how she is now pushing inclusivity forward.
In 2016, Helen was recognised by Construction Week magazine as the Middle East’s Engineer of the Year, an outstanding moment as not only did it mark a momentous achievement in her career but also a very dear personal milestone.
“When I was a young graduate, there were very few women in my field, and at one point, a senior manager told me I would never make it in the Middle East due to my gender. I took this as a personal challenge,” she said.
Fast forwarding to 2023, Helen has risen through the ranks, now leading a highly skilled team, committed to making an impact in the region. With her leadership and expertise, they tackle critical issues such as water scarcity, recycling, and flooding. Helen's journey started a long time ago when she was a small child.
“As a youngster, I grew up in a part of the UK, where the sea forms an important part of life. So, when I graduated in 1989 in the field of Civil Engineering, I knew I wanted to work in a subject related to water, and deliberately targeted companies offering both marine and water services.
My first employer put me to work under a very good mentor who was specialised in the subject of wastewater treatment. I enjoyed working in the water field so much, I then followed this for my career path, developing from wastewater treatment into networks and eventually into clean and recycled water treatment and networks.”
Helen has been profoundly invested in her projects throughout her career, successfully completing several complex projects from concept stage, collaborating with different disciplines and crafting innovative solutions.
“My passion is to see the projects that I have led or designed moving to fruition, making a positive impact on local communities. There are many examples from my career in the UK, where I was a Consultant Programme Manager for a UK water company, and in Qatar, where I contributed to the delivery of KAHRAMAA’s Mega Reservoir from preliminary design to commissioning.”
Helen has been a tireless advocate for fostering greater diversity and inclusion in the workplace and in all aspects of life, making her a role model and a source of inspiration to many.
“An inclusive, psychologically safe working environment is extremely important to allow growth and development. This is something I have always focused on in the teams I have led. I am proud that my water team combines multiple nationalities and backgrounds and is approximately 50% female.
As leaders, we are only as good as the teams that we lead. We must provide an environment for our teams to thrive and create psychologically safe environments in which everyone can operate in a transparent manner.”
Leaning into inclusion…
As a Lean expert, Karisha Trotman-Welch excels at bringing people from different backgrounds and disciplines together for successful collaboration. Her mandate is to remove silos and communication barriers between teams, for more efficient use of resources and ideas.
“As a woman and minority in many ways, it may surprise no one that I have experienced my share of exclusion and psychologically unsafe working environments. However, it is what I choose to do today to prevent others from experiencing this that I believe will be my greatest success story yet.”
“I openly strive every day to remove barriers that exclude others and continuously push myself to reach out to build trust and cooperation among people. Lean principles are a great daily reminder of this, as they are driven by respect for people at the very core. There is no such thing as Lean Construction without sincere inclusion and psychologically safe spaces for individuals to openly contribute the best of themselves for the betterment of project delivery.”
Karisha's enthusiasm for engineering began when she was just a child, collaborating with her classmate to design a sophisticated go-kart.
“I was about 8 years old when I came home from school asking my parents to buy me a go-kart. My mother’s response was an absolute no, but instinctively I thought there had to be a solution. The very next day, I enlisted a friend at school, and the two of us started drawing go-kart prototypes and sketching the structure for my ideal tree house with go-kart parking. My reasoning at the time was that I could probably still convince my mother because she worked at a Faculty of Engineering surrounded by engineers who would certainly understand my designs.”
“In hindsight, being born and raised in a city like Montreal never made me question if, as a young girl, I could become an engineer someday. Eventually, I had the privilege of studying at Ecole Polytechnique, a top engineering school.”
Over time, Karisha became intrigued by the possibilities of chemical engineering and pursued a degree in this field, then taking a more industrial engineering path after her graduation as she developed an interest in Lean.
“I always found myself being sought out for advice on quality, continuous improvement, and being recognised for my care and respect for people. Somehow, I may not have chosen my field of expertise, but I would say Lean has certainly chosen me. I am proud of how I inspire others to dare beyond the limitations that may be expected of them and how I have made continuous improvement in my career and a significant part of the woman I continuously strive and grow to be.”
As Principal Engineer – Enhancement & Lean Manager, Karisha strives to induce change in construction projects by building collaborative, inclusive and equitable working spaces. She said, “I emphasise that awareness and understanding are key steps that should not be overlooked or minimised in striving to improve anything. I believe this same approach should be taken in improving how we embrace equity within our industry to provide better opportunities for highly skilled and talented individuals.”
Karisha is an inspiring role model for young female engineers. Her advice for them is to take risks and pursue their passion…
“Dare to take some risks; not everything has to be calculated. Trust that you have something special to offer the world that only you can. Charter your own course because no one is as uniquely talented as you are. It has often been those who were willing to bravely be themselves that have made some of the greatest contributions and advancements in this world.”
Change for Inclusion
Akram Ashour, Director of Infrastructure Supervision – Qatar, Kuwait & Oman, has been a long-time advocate for women’s inclusion in the workplace.
“Supervision is more male-dominated than other engineering disciplines. Therefore, what I strive to achieve is to build teams that reflect and respect the unique perspectives, skills and contributions of all genders and that enable women to reach their full potential. I consider it a priority to ensure our diverse team has the same access to development opportunities. I am always keen on meeting with potential new hires to discuss their qualifications, motivations, and experiences in the industry.”
“We strive to provide more flexible working conditions that suit the social and individual needs of our colleagues. These changes require client approval and support as they often clash with contractual requirements, but we have started negotiations, and are sensing appreciation for the cause from clients. We support all colleagues with their career progression decisions, making it easier to move between projects, countries and regions to complement their expertise and allow them to explore new territories.”
As an advocate, Akram delivers many webinars focused on inclusion and diversity. This, in addition to his daily interaction with various teams from different countries and organisations, makes him better able to recognise the main inclusion needs of our region and industry.
“Unfortunately, the outdated beliefs that women are not suitable for certain roles or jobs within the sector are still held by many people and employers. Therefore, it is very important that we all take steps now to create an environment where women feel supported and empowered as they pursue their careers in construction. Personally, I feel so happy when I see men supporting their female colleagues who blaze their own paths with grit and dedication.”
“Another issue I encounter sometimes is the perception around women’s inclusion initiatives. Some might regard such endeavours as biased against men, but this simply is not the case. In the webinars I have contributed to, I always emphasise that equity is what guarantees sustainable success and that teams can break from within if bias and prejudice prevail,” he added.
Akram believes that women bring unique perspectives and creative solutions to projects. His advice to team leaders and organisations is: “Women’s inclusion is essential. By including diverse voices and backgrounds in technical conversations, we create ideas and solutions that are more innovative, holistic, and reflective of our world today”.