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Women of Innovation

By Anne Millar and Mary Wells

Margaret Kuzyk is a civil engineer who has volunteered with the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Saskatchewan for more than twenty years and was its first female president. Courtesy of Margaret Kuzyk.

Margaret Kuzyk has a background in civil engineering and more than thirty years of experience working in the public sector for municipal, provincial, and federal governments. She is a leading expert in regulatory codes and standards and specializes in building codes. A dedicated member of her profession, Margaret served on the executive committee of the Canadian Commission on Building and Fire Codes for twenty years. 

Margaret has volunteered with the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Saskatchewan (APEGS) for more than twenty years and was the association's first woman president. In 2008 Margaret received the APEGS Brian Eckle Distinguished Service Award and the following year she was awarded the SBOA Lifetime Award. The National Research Council of Canada presented her with the Bruce CLemmensen Outstanding Achievement Award in 2012. Margaret is a fellow of Engineers Canada and an honourary fellow of Geoscientists Canada. She is also a fellow and the current secretary of the Canadian Society of Senior Engineers. 

Were you good at math and science from a young age? Yes. I distinctly recall several occasions when I was particularly interested and when teachers encouraged me to build on these interests: the wave table in physics and the mind-bending puzzles of all types of math. I liked the precision and order that comes with scientific investigation and thought. When I was young, the approach to teaching was to show how to do things rather than to let children find methods and solutions on their own. This presented a picture of math and science that was very organized and black and white, right or wrong. Once I learned how to find the right answers, I felt proud in my accomplishments.

What do you enjoy most about being a civil engineer? Being able to improve the world. Civil engineering helps make better, safer buildings.

What are you most proud of in your career? Helping to show that diverse teams reach superior solutions. I think that considering a variety of perspectives is really important to finding good solutions.

Where do you feel you have made the biggest impact in your work? I had an impact when I was a member of the Canadian Commission on Building and Fire Codes. I was on the Executive Committee from 1995 until my last term ended in 2015. I think that I had a real impact there because I am an engineer who people can work with. During my last two terms there, I was one of four people on a working group. The others were from the National Research Council (NRC), which is the home of this Commission. We developed the new policies and procedures for the operation of the Commission, which were adopted by the Commission members and endorsed by the NRC. They were sent for critique to the Institute on Governance in Ottawa, which said that our policies and procedures were a good model for federal and provincial collaboration. They covered things like the structure of the Commission, the standing committees, task groups, working groups, and how these groups worked together. They covered the meeting procedures, communications, expectations, and conduct of members. There was a section on procedures, how a change is made to a national model code and how it goes through the process of all of the approvals and development. It really set the stage for how the whole Commission itself was set up to work. It was my experience with government and my professional association that I brought to the table.

How did you become involved with APEGS? Once I realized that I could both contribute to and gain from being involved in the activities of my professional association, I volunteered to be a member of the committee that reached out to school students to interest them in engineering careers (this work has been going on for a long time). Through those efforts, I met many volunteer and staff engineers and learned about the privileges and requirements of a self-regulating profession. When I was asked to stand for election to Council, I was honoured and challenged. I worked my way through positions on the executive committee to become the first female president of my professional association at a time when it was going through significant changes. It was during my term as president that regulation of geoscientists was legally added to the engineering association’s responsibilities. This year we celebrated the twentieth anniversary of that happy partnership.

Since my time on Council, I have continued to be involved: attending annual meetings and professional development conferences, contributing to past president’s meetings, serving on committees, representing the association as a member of a university senate, being awarded the association’s highest honour, fulfilling one-of services when called upon, and, most importantly, participating in strengthening my profession for the public good.

How important has professional service been to the development of your career? Extremely important because it establishes important networks. Professional service is a means of accessing a crucial network, one that I think all engineers should be using. You need to be able to reach out to your peers and engineers from different disciplines. I’m lucky to have been involved with the provincial association, as president and on committees, and knowing the people that are working for the association.

Can you identify some of the challenges you have faced in your career and how you’ve overcome them? Aside from some petty annoyances that come with being a woman in a male-dominated profession, I have overall not faced significant challenges. I tend to be risk-averse and avoid situations that could be trouble. Early in my career, I was transferred by my employer from a construction site in one city to another, but by the time I reached the new location, my job was gone. I thought, “Oh my God. I’m here in a strange city, I don’t know anybody, what am I supposed to do?” That was definitely a turning point for me. I had to regroup and get myself together. Lots of people go through that. The first time it’s not your decision to leave a job, it’s a shock. I went back to live with my mom and dad because I couldn’t afford not to. I was still paying student loans. After working in a non-engineering job for a while, I was hired in a new city in an engineering position, and continued to build my career.

Why do you believe women are still underrepresented in engineering? The preconceived, stereotyped notions of what an engineer does: the image of an engineer wearing a hard hat and boots and going out into a muddy site. We have to learn how to convey that there are all sorts of engineering careers that are done in many locations, from indoors to outdoors, from the laboratory, to computer, to manufacturing, to the board room. And I think there are still a lot of people who don’t view engineering as a helping profession. It is a helping profession. There is no question in my mind that the successful women in engineering that I’ve run into are there because they want to do something good for people — not necessarily individuals, but communities and society.

What advice would you give to a young woman considering a career in engineering? There are so many opportunities, so many different avenues that you can follow with engineering. Many engineers don’t end up really even doing the “tool box” engineering, but they have great careers. A lot of engineers very early on move into management positions. CEOs of a lot of companies have engineering backgrounds, not just in oil and gas but also in manufacturing, business, and technology. Many of my friends from university have had success in management roles because of their analytical abilities and their ability to take complex data — a lot of it numerical — and synthesize it to make decisions. The foundational skills that you develop in engineering are critical to decision making and risk analysis.

What skills have influenced your success? I’m a details person, but I can also sit back and see the big picture, the philosophy, the concept of making sure that I have all the views that I need from other people in order to make a correct decision.

How do you define innovation? My definition of innovation is implementing a better solution.

What qualities does an innovator possess? An innovator has to see and understand the complete problem before they can find a better solution. That’s an important skill to have. You have to be able to define what you want to improve.

How do you see yourself as an innovator? I always want to make things better. I’m strong at communicating. I look to role models and other examples to see what has worked and what didn’t and to see what has had the best outcomes.

How have you been innovative in your work? The provinces and territories are responsible for setting the building codes, fire codes, and plumbing codes that regulate construction. When I worked in building standards for the province, I was involved with adopting codes that would apply to the whole province of Saskatchewan. The way the system has evolved in Canada and most other countries is that an authority having jurisdiction adopts the rules and then those rules are enforced by building officials who are given the authority to enforce them. Building officials accept building permit applications, conduct plan reviews, and inspect buildings under construction to make sure the construction is in accordance with what was reviewed. In Saskatchewan, the provincial legislation assigns responsibility to municipalities to enforce the codes, but there were no criteria that established what qualifications building officials had to have to do that work for municipalities. I set up a licensing program for building officials. It was the first across Canada. It was a way to help ensure that construction was done as well as it could be according to the design. It would help building owners produce safer buildings, because that’s what building code is about. It would help municipalities employ people that knew what they were doing as far as safety goes. I felt very strongly that the Saskatchewan government needed to set out the rules about who’s qualified, because most of the municipalities here weren’t big enough to be able to do so. I managed to convince the necessary people to put this kind of legislation in place. It was an improvement for Saskatchewan. I was really quite happy with that.

How were you able to successfully advance your idea to set up a licensing program? First, I needed to communicate what the impact would be on all of the building officials that were working at that point in time. Then, I made sure that I had all building officials on board and communicated with the municipal associations and got them to a point where they were willing to accept the change in the legislation. Then, I worked it through internal channels. Working with government at that point in time, the government asked what legislation needed to be addressed and what regulations had to be worked on and staff would submit written proposals. If your proposal got accepted, then you started the process of writing the legislation, drafting it with the legal people and doing briefs for the politicians that you needed to do in order to get them to take it to the House and convince them.

Do you believe women innovate differently than men? People innovate differently based on their background and experience. I see men and women developing, fostering, or facilitating improvements or a new solution equally. Here in Saskatchewan, I see that the people who have had the opportunity to grow up on a farm and by necessity have been pressed to find alternate ways to do things, tend to have a better ability to problem solve, to look at alternatives to find the best way. My family’s farming background seemed to be a good model to help me come up with different solutions. That good old Saskatchewan mentality — use binder twine to fix what’s broken and keep going.

How do we encourage young people to be innovators? I think it ties to when kids are really young. If you can get them working with some of the new engineering toys, entering some of the contests, building the bridge out of Popsicle sticks and things like that, and really test their ability to find creative solutions, I think they’re going to be the ones to become our best innovators. My parents gave us enough freedom to do things wrong and helped us discover the best way to do things. I don’t think an innovator starts from scratch, so helping young people define problems, look for possible solutions, and test the concepts will foster large and small ideas.

To read more about Margaret and the other Women of Innovation, purchase the book here.

Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Saskatchewan
Achieving a Safe & Prosperous Future Through Engineering & Geoscience