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Interview with Jeanette Southwood, Vice President, Corporate Affairs and Strategic Partnerships, Engineers Canada

Interview with Jeanette Southwood, Vice President, Corporate Affairs and Strategic Partnerships, Engineers Canada

Jeanette, thank you very much for joining us today, with Women in Power Systems, and supporting our cause by sharing your knowledge with us. First, I wanted to say that your work and involvement with many organizations are really inspiring, not just for women, but for all of us and all of the people who want to make the engineering world more inclusive. Please tell us a little bit about yourself and the positions that you currently hold with Engineers Canada and other organizations.

Jeanette Southwood

My name is Jeanette Southwood. I’m the Vice President, Corporate Affairs and Strategic Partnerships, at Engineers Canada, and I’m an engineer myself. I’m Black and I’m an immigrant. I was the first person in my immediate family to attend university. I have a bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering and a master’s degree in Chemical and Environmental Engineering. I also have an honorary doctorate. Prior to coming to Engineers Canada, I worked for a global consulting company, and I had a number of roles there including local, regional, national, and international roles. I was also the global sustainable cities leader and the Canadian urban development and infrastructure sector leader. Early in my career after I received my master’s degree, the economic times were quite challenging. I started working for a municipality on contract and then learned about a permanent role at a consulting company. As part of my work before Engineers Canada, I wrote and collaborated on research, reports, articles, book chapters, technical papers, and presentations on urbanization, urban resilience, climate adaptation and sustainable development, I also created university courses and lectured at universities. I worked in consulting until I joined Engineers Canada. In parallel with my working roles, I have also been a volunteer for a number of organizations and some of them were engineering focused organizations, and some of them were not. The primary causes that I currently advocate for in both my volunteer work and in my day-to-day work are equity, diversity, inclusion, and accessibility (EDIA), as well as climate change, climate adaptation, and getting the world ready for what climate change is bringing. I’m currently on the TD Insurance Advisory Board on Climate Change. In December, I will begin my term on the Board of the Electrical Safety Authority.

From my perspective, and also from the perspective of Engineers Canada, we feel it’s only possible to truly address these challenges if our profession reflects society.

What specific challenges did you face in your journey?


I’d say that some of the challenges I encountered in my engineering journey are similar to what others who are from under-represented groups have encountered. Engineers Canada belongs to consortiums that are doing research in a number of different areas. One of the research consortiums to which we belong is called Engendering Success in STEM (ESS). ESS has identified some of the key challenges and obstacles girls and women face from childhood to becoming a STEM professional, and what could be done to tackle these obstacles. For example, for women who are STEM professionals, a key obstacle is a culture of exclusion. ESS’ work tests methods for enhancing inclusion at organizations using evidence-based strategies including how to engage in effective allyship behavior. I was fortunate to have had allies, mentors, role models, sponsors, as well as supportive family and friends throughout my career. I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for those individuals. In turn, as I have progressed through my career, I have been an ally, a mentor, a sponsor and have supported those around me. No one journeys alone.

Earlier this year, I participated as a member of Canada’s official delegation to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (UNCSW) meetings and served as a representative on Canada’s Rapid Response Team providing input to Canada’s negotiators during the meetings. A few months later, four members of the delegation, including myself, were interviewed by the Royal Canadian Mint for the launch of a new coin honouring Elsie MacGill, the first practising Canadian woman engineer and a passionate advocate for human rights. The coin is an important reminder of the continued need for transformation in the engineering profession. While we have come a long way, we still have far to go.

What inspired you to go into engineering as a profession, also considering all the challenges that you mentioned?


When I was in high school, I didn’t know anything about engineering until my final year. One of my best friends, who is still one of my best friends today, went into our guidance counselor’s office, because neither of us was sure what we wanted to do when we graduated from high school. We both had very good marks in math and science, and also English and other subjects. She found some pamphlets that described the engineering programs at different universities. At some of the universities, in addition to the core math and science courses as part of the engineering curriculum, they also had non-technical electives that included languages, literature, philosophy, psychology, and other topics. Both of us thought that these programs could be a fit, knowing that we had very broad interests. So we both applied and we were both accepted.

What does your organization do to address the challenges that young girls face regarding joining the engineering, math, science careers?


Complementing our participation in research consortiums, Engineers Canada contributes to the public policy dialogue around EDIA; this involvement takes various forms such as participation in federal government consultations and testifying before parliamentary committees. Engineers Canada also has several programs to address the challenges. Some programs are our own and for some of these we partner with other organizations. For example, to increase awareness of engineering among young girls, their families, teachers and others, we partnered with Girl Guides of Canada to create an engineering crest program. A second example is the Future City Experience, a free project-based learning program where students in grades 6, 7, and 8 imagine, research, design, and build cities of the future. We strive to provide every participating group with an engineering mentor. The Future City Experience is an adaptation of the Future City Competition, developed by an American organization called DiscoverE founded by the National Society of Professional Engineers in the US. One of the things that we particularly liked about DiscoverE’s Future City program is that it is run during the school day, recognizing that not every student has access or resources to go to after-school programs or programs on a Saturday. For example, if they live far from their school, they may not have anyone to drive them or their family may not have the resources to arrange for transportation – or it might not be safe for them to be out in the evening walking back from school. For our Future City Experience, last year’s theme was a waste-free city and this year it was living on the moon. A third example of one of our programs is Let’s Talk Careers, for which we have partnered with Let’s Talk Science, Skills/Compétences Canada, and ChatterHigh to engage high school students in career discovery and exploration. And a final example is a partnership between Engineers Canada and ChatterHigh to create a gamified engineering course that is freely available for both students and teachers on the ChatterHigh platform. The course allows students to explore the exciting and diverse range of opportunities in engineering, what it means to be an engineer, and how engineering impacts society. The gamified course also features a breadth of topics, including EDI within engineering.

I hope this will also be expanded to Europe and other parts of the world because I think children could really benefit from this. I know that the engineering industry is facing different challenges, for example, lack of workforce, and also we are all facing climate change. How do you think that empowering women engineers and attracting young girls to join the engineering field can help address those challenges?


From my perspective, and also from the perspective of Engineers Canada, we feel it’s only possible to truly address these challenges if our profession reflects society. To be able to respond to the challenges of society, the engineering profession must reflect society. In addition, Engineers Canada is a member of the World Federation of Engineering Organizations (WFEO). I represent Engineers Canada on the WFEO Women in Engineering (WiE) Committee. Through the WFEO WiE Committee, member organizations around the world share their promising practices and learnings with each other to assist in moving forward together,

Can you name some good examples in good practice in companies that target especially the empowerment of women in the industry today?


One of Engineers Canada’s initiatives is called 30 by 30, and it’s a collective impact project intended to increase the numbers of newly licensed female-identifying engineers to 30% by 2030. 30 by 30 is also about retaining women in engineering. We are working with our 12 engineering regulators across Canada, post-secondary institutions, and engineering employers to achieve that. A key message is that the culture and the organizations need to be fixed; it’s not the women who need to be fixed. Those who hold the levers – Boards and senior leaders in all organizations –– must use those levers to make change. Another key message is that it’s very difficult for any one company, for any one sector, and for any one organization to do this alone. There are lessons to be learned from all sectors, from all organizations. Working together to share the best practices and to share the successes is the only way that we’re going to move forward. It’s through this type of collaboration that change will be made towards a more equitable, diverse, inclusive and accessible engineering profession.

Find more inspirational interviews and articles in our September 2023 issue of Women in Power Systems.