A professional engineer and partner at Isherwood Geostructural – a consulting firm specializing in geostructural, geotechnical and foundation projects in Toronto, Vancouver and throughout Canada – Carol Domitric was so pleased when she came across the company 26 years ago.
“I was not particularly aware of it during my studies, but before I settled on civil engineering, I considered studying mining engineering or geophysics, and I enjoyed geotechnical analysis and design courses,” she said. “So, when I stumbled across Isherwood in my job search, I was excited to discover this niche area that combined aspects of both structural and geotechnical engineering.”
Growing up in the northwest end of Toronto in Rexdale, Domitric attended Queen’s University and obtained a bachelor of science in civil engineering. When she joined Isherwood, she was concerned that it was such a small company with only six employees at the time. Also, she was at least a decade younger than everyone else.
“But once I learned how many different projects they handled, and saw the high quality and variety of their work on prominent buildings like the CN Tower and SkyDome (now Rogers Centre), I was intrigued,” she said. “This would not be boring! I would not be missing out even though my classmates had jobs on oil rigs or at larger firms. It proved true as I dug right in with great satisfaction.”
In those early days she also recalls being quite open to doing whatever was needed to be done.
“In addition to design, my early work included drafting, monitoring, field work and other aspects of the business. I had a knack for safety and training owing to my experience as a (lifeguard and swim) instructor and CPR and first aid trainer, not to mention growing up with a talented teacher for a mom.”
In those days, she never second guessed her ability and wasn’t averse to trying different things. For example, when she was still fairly junior – but had monitoring experience including installations – she led a team into the Toronto Transit Commission tunnels to repair electrolevels in the middle of the night, which was the only time power could be cut for access.
“There were all sorts of opportunities for me to experience every aspect of the business. As the team grew, I became a go-to person as senior engineers were often out and I could answer their questions. Nadir Ansari, who took over the business from our founder, Brian Isherwood, gave me plenty of his time and shared perspectives with me. Eventually, I accepted an opportunity to become a shareholder,” she said.
As Isherwood’s education and safety programming leader, Domitric is leading the development of a fundamentals education program to ensure the company has a reliable way to bring along people to the team.
“We strive to pass on the ingenuity of our founder, Brian. He worked collaboratively with contractors to innovate a better design approach exploring how to improve constructability and performance using the observational method. He was a pioneer in the early deep foundations industry in Toronto and a remarkably social engineer who truly cared for people as well as his work,” she said.
While it is no surprise that engineering is a male-dominated profession, Domitric says she never felt defined as a female engineer. Rather, she is an individual who wanted access to things outside her experience, mainly direct participation in building the urban world in which she lives and learning the way the business works.
“I did intentionally choose a career path that would give me access to a world beyond the traditional careers my mom and aunts had in teaching and nursing. I admired how clever and competent they all were, and that they were working women,” she said. “I wanted to strike out in the private sector and try something different.”
After graduating, Domitric found working on-site was a natural fit and she got along with site personnel, who, at that time, were older, experienced men with a lot of skill and who were eager to share their knowledge.
“My father was a cabinet maker who managed a furniture factory. I admired his ability to build things, fix anything and be a leader at his work. I had respect and awe of tradespeople, and felt a familiarity and comfort with the fellows I’d work with on sites.”
Early in her career, she found it difficult to show confidence at consultant meetings. Through experience and honing her technical skills, she built that up. Domitric always enjoyed delving into calculations, but designing through the visual representation on drawings and learning to conceptualize the design was where her understanding and competence really took off.
“Then building my ability to work with people became more important, and with mentoring and coaching, I developed myself and over time became more comfortable speaking up and taking my place at meetings,” she said. “It is easy to be overlooked as a younger-looking female. With this assumption being made that I was always the junior when being accompanied by a male, it was hard for me to learn to speak up and be confident.”
At meetings or events with a male colleague, she says it was common for people to turn to him expecting him to be her superior. At an engineering conference, she brought her husband to attend a dinner with her.
“A man sitting next to me asked me how I was enjoying the accompanying person’s program! I typically regarded these experiences with amusement and would simply clear the misunderstanding, which I think helps others to recognize their own prejudices and revise their approach,” she said. “Sadly, I am aware of more serious situations other women have faced, and as safety leader, (I) have dealt with instances of mistreatment of our employees on project sites.”
When it comes to women in this particular field, Domitric says she has certainly seen an increase in the number of women she encounters in her work.
“At Isherwood, more than half of our technical staff are women, so I am used to working on female teams. But seeing more women as external colleagues gives me great hope that conditions are becoming more favourable, and women are certainly asserting themselves and blazing a trail to a future with gender constraints removed and a better, healthier industry for all. Possibly also better for men who want more time with families and a healthier, more balanced life.”
She is also a big proponent of treating everyone as people with capabilities, not defined by looks, gender, age or other things not relevant to what they do. She recalls that when she had young children to look after, her workplace allowed her the flexibility needed so she could do her job without any needless barriers.
“As a parent with young kids, you have to work doubly hard and, as a motivated ambitious person, I wasn’t prevented from taking on significant projects and challenges to let me grow. I could reach out for help without being deemed different or unable,” she said.
As for the future of the industry in the short term, Domitric says it is very strong as there is a big demand for housing and infrastructure that is driving the need for industry’s work.
“Into the future, we’ll need to be alert for changing trends and innovations that could be rapid and game changing. I often wonder what will be the future of underground subways, other underground spaces and the geostructural needs of the future.”
As for her own future career plans, Domitric is keen to work with her team as head of engineering at Isherwood.
“Currently, I am leading a fundamentals education program to more effectively develop skills that are unique to our business and not taught at school. Geostructural engineering is a niche and the way Isherwood does our business as a client-centred boutique company is unique. I plan to ensure we continue to enable talented people of all kinds to flourish and balance their needs and lives with their work.”
In her limited spare time away from work, she loves spending it with her husband and three kids.
“I met my husband playing ultimate frisbee. I still play and now our kids join us and make great subs so I can catch my breath. I also walk my dog and enjoy being outdoors. I pursue art – particularly drawing and cartooning – as it’s an easy go-to with the demands of work and other time commitments.”