Fazilat engineering a future for women in her field

Adela Talbot // Western News

Saher Fazilat, Western’s new executive director for Facilities Engineering and Development, is one of few female civil engineers working in construction. She wants to encourage more women to join the field.

Saher Fazilat wants you to walk the proverbial mile – in her heavy work boots.

A civil engineer working hands-on in construction, she occupies the kind of post few women have seen. And she’ll be the first to tell you – her career, spanning more than a decade and a half, hasn’t exactly been an easy slog.

“I come from a developing world, and I came to a developed world, thinking here, women will have a better chance of doing this work famously done by men,” said Fazilat, Western’s new executive director for Facilities Engineering and Development.

“Fourteen years later, and I hardly see any females in heavy construction.”

About a decade and a half ago, Fazilat moved to Canada from India with her husband, who pursued a promising employment opportunity in information technology. She had experience in the field prior to the move, having worked on the construction of American schools and with the American embassy. On these projects, she was the only local engineer.

Fazilat and her husband landed in Canada in January 2000. She had her first job interview that March, after weeks of searching the Yellow Pages and making cold calls. There was no Google at the time, she laughed.

“I had four rounds of interviews for the same company and the last round, they couldn’t resist and said, ‘Woman, would you be willing to go on construction sites?’ I said, ‘Sure, why not?’” Fazilat continued.

“My dad, who’s been very instrumental in me being who I am today, was always telling me civil engineers need to go in boots and hats outside, and do work there. From early on, if someone asked for my hand in marriage – we have a tradition of arranged marriage – he would ask, ‘Would you let her work in construction?’”

Since her arrival in Canada, Fazilat has had the opportunity to showcase her skills in various roles, including high-profile posts with the City of Toronto and Town of Oakville.

She holds degrees in engineering and project management, as well as an MBA from York University. Last year, she completed Harvard Business School’s Executive Education Program for Leadership Development.

In life, there are things you have to stand up for, Fazilat said, and when it came to her position and expertise, she learned to be unwavering. She credits her late father, her husband and a handful of colleagues for their support as she confidently pushed forward in her career. Her father encouraged her; her husband, juggling a demanding full-time job, supported her in every career move; and employers taught her the importance of perseverance.

“I learned, sometimes the hard way, that I had to stand up for myself. The good part of it is that I have had really good mentors in my life. One of my bosses in the past said, ‘I can speak for you, but I will not always be there to speak for you, so you have to stand up and speak for yourself.’ I’ve been on construction sites with 50 men, from supervisors to workers – no females,” she explained.

“If you walk by, the eyes roll. Often people who you think would behave better were the ones who disrespected you, like respected companies and contractors who knew I would be signing their cheque. I was in my mid-20s when I started, and had people reporting to me in their 40s, so there were challenges, like asking why they had to tell me where they were going,” Fazilat added.

“I had to stand up for a few women on site, too. Our industry is very male-dominated but those challenges taught me a lot and made me stronger,” she continued.

Even after she arrived at Western this summer, there were assumptions she was a man from those who had not met her in person, Fazilat laughed.

“My name is foreign, and many times, I get reports addressed to Mr. Fazilat,” she said.

Under her current portfolio are new construction projects, major and minor renovations on campus, design, project management and land dealings. Very few women occupy similar positions, Fazilat said.

“Universities have these unique buildings. They always entice me, with such a diverse collection of buildings. Western is one of the best for that. And it’s a two-way street here – I’m here to learn as much as I’m here to share my professional expertise,” she continued.

Fazilat and her husband both have rewarding, though demanding careers, but family was never something to compromise for success. Their two girls, aged 9 and 5, always have a parent at home for dinner, each alternating roles as primary caregiver as their day jobs allow.

“I’ve been very lucky. But our industry needs more women. We are strong – we should step up and not be scared,” Fazilat said.