For many women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), the passion for problem-solving starts at a young age. While careers in this sector is the goal, many obstacles still stand in the way, such as discrimination and gender stereotypes, with engineering being viewed as “not a traditional female role.” With these challenges it can be difficult to gain confidence in one’s ideas, opinions, and abilities.

While women make up more than half of the Canadian population, they are significantly underrepresented in engineering education and in the engineering profession. The number of women enrolled in post-secondary engineering programs has risen in recent decades. However, according to Engineers Canada, men still vastly outnumber women in engineering. This is especially true in the c-suite.

Every year on June 23, individuals and organizations around the world celebrate International Women in Engineering Day. To mark the occasion, we are highlighting a leading engineer from 3M Canada to share her experiences and the opportunities available for women entering into the engineering field.

Corporate Environmental Specialist Catharine Urquhart applies her chemical engineering skills and passion for sustainability to ensure that 3M sites are continuously improving their environmental performance and are meeting compliance obligations. This helps 3M keep sustainability top of mind throughout the business.

What prompted you to enter the field: did you have any particular mentors or an inspiring experience that led you here?

My dad was an engineer and I always enjoyed math and sciences during high school. It seemed like it was a good fit for me since it was a combination of those two subjects. In school, chemistry was my least favourite science, but I ended up in chemical engineering so it’s a good reminder to not give up on things that you don’t like at first.

What has your journey been in terms of education and professional milestones?

I have a Bachelor of Engineering Science degree from the University of Western Ontario.  I specialized in chemical and biochemical engineering and am licensed with the Professional Engineers of Ontario. I started my career in the nuclear power industry and then moved into manufacturing.  At 3M Canada I have held various roles such as process engineer, manufacturing supervisor, regulatory affairs manager, Lean Six Sigma Black belt, Operations Manager and now Corporate Environmental Specialist. Having an engineering degree and an employer who advocates for broadening your experience has allowed me to have many opportunities.

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What are your current responsibilities at 3M Canada?

I am the corporate environmental specialist for 3M Canada. In my role I ensure that our sites are continuously improving in our environmental performance at our manufacturing facilities. I help sites ensure that they are meeting their compliance obligations.

Have you had any career challenges along the way and how did you achieve success?
My experience as a woman in engineering has been largely positive. I have felt welcomed and valued in all of my roles. My biggest obstacle to overcome was gaining confidence in my ideas and opinions.

What are some of your favourite projects and proudest accomplishments so far?

I am most proud of providing the environmental support for 3M Canada’s N95 manufacturing facility that was built during the pandemic to supply critical PPE to front line workers. More recently, I am proud of working with our sites in Canada to implement a new water management standard developed by 3M that advances how we analyze our industrial wastewater and stormwater and helps provide critical information as 3M enhances environmental stewardship at our sites. By regularly analyzing our industrial discharges, we are better equipped to make data-driven decisions that will enhance environmental stewardship at our sites.

What are your goals for the next few years and what are your hopes for the next gen of Canadian female engineers working in the environment field?

In the next few years, I would like to continue to work on programs and initiatives that move companies beyond regulatory compliance to advanced environmental stewardship. I hope the next generation of female engineers feel motivated, engaged and ready to take on the upcoming challenges in the environmental field. I hope they never feel like they can’t ask questions and that they feel safe to say that they don’t know something but are willing to learn.

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Connie Vitello is editor of Environment Journal. Join the conversation and email


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