Izabela Witkowska mentors young girls interested in STEM through programs like Make Your Move and Girls in Aviation. Courtesy of Izabela Witkowska.

Izabela Witkowska has a background in mechanical engineering with a specialty in materials science and is a recognized expert in the area of gas turbine engine failure analysis. She is currently a principal engineer and senior airworthiness engineer in the design approval organization of StandardAero Limited, a major international aerospace company. She is also the senior design engineer for the Royal Australian Air Force, the first woman from her company to hold this position. She was the first woman and is currently the only woman at StandardAero to hold a Transport Canada delegated engineer position.

Izabela is a mentor with the University of Manitoba's WISE Kid-Netic Energy event Make Your Move, in which grade eight girls are paired with a female engineer for the day to learn about engineering and compete in design-build challenges. She also sits on the organization committee for Girls in Aviation Day, a Women in Aviation International event. She is also a member of StandardAero's employment equity committee and since 2013 has been chair of the company's women in engineering subcommittee. She is also a member of the Manitoba Employment Equity Practitioners Association of Manitoba. 

Was it difficult to gain recognition as a professional engineer after you arrived in Canada? When we went to the association of professional engineers to ask about recognition as engineers in order to be able to apply for engineering jobs, they said, “You didn’t graduate from a university in Canada, so you’ll have to start from scratch,” meaning, we would have had to go through at least a master’s program to get recognition. There was another avenue: confirmatory examinations. You had to pass three examinations, but each exam covered six to eight subjects of your coursework. You submitted the curriculum from your university, your grades, English knowledge, and all of your relevant papers. It was reviewed by the association and exams were assigned. On top of the technical exams, there was also one ethics exam. You only got one chance. If you failed, you had to go through formal education. The pressure was on because the process was expensive. It was about $2,500 in 1990. If you had just arrived and didn’t have a job, it would be a lot of money. And there were two of us.

What do you enjoy most about being an engineer? Engineering work has global applications. It gives me a lot of pride to see some of the things that I have contributed to. Working in aerospace allows me to be surrounded by the newest technologies and innovative ideas. I am constantly being exposed to new research development. I get to travel a lot for business because the sky does not have borders. As an engineer, I’m able to leave the world a better place because I develop and deliver training in areas where it doesn’t exist or is difficult to obtain. Another good thing about engineering is every day is different, every day is full of challenges. The harder the challenge, the bigger the fulfillment for me and for my team.

What are you most proud of in your career? I am a delegated engineer for Transport Canada. There are only 200 of those engineers across the country. Not too many of them are immigrants. I’m the only woman and the only immigrant delegated engineer from my company. The other is being the senior design engineer for the Royal Australian Air Force. This is the first time a woman was nominated from my company. I’m proud of mentoring engineers. I probably mentor about fifteen women, most of them at StandardAero. Having a network of women engineers is important. It encourages you to pursue your dreams and to dream big.

When did you first become interested in mentoring women in engineering? When I was managing the process engineering group and recruiting for process engineers. I was managing the metallurgical laboratory as well, and the chemical and calibration labs. There were a lot of women in those labs and some of them had engineering degrees from their own country, but their degrees weren’t recognized in Canada. There was one woman from the Philippines. I helped her go through the same [examination] process that I went through. Then we promoted her to process engineer. She was very grateful.

What do you consider some of the most significant turning points in your career? My studies during university, which introduced me to the various fields of engineering. I saw the need for improvement in many areas right there. For example, I wasn’t sure why forging was so noisy, why it was so hot. I thought, “Can we do something to protect employees to make their work safer? Can we make noise barriers? Can we have computers that will run the machines from outside?” Working as a professor’s assistant introduced me to innovation and to thinking outside the box. It taught me that if you want to invent something or make something better, you do not necessarily have to be super smart, but you have to be aware of your surroundings. Teaching at university taught me a lot of things — what type of learning students should be exposed to in high school and in earlier grades to prepare them for university. Definitely moving to Canada, the land of opportunity, was a turning point and starting working for aerospace, and the big focus on safety, compliance, and high standards, the attention to details, which I love. My promotion to process engineering manager gave me an understanding of what motivates people to work in aerospace. Not everybody will be satisfied with a high wage, people will sometimes be more satisfied with motivation, achievement, and feeling appreciated. This taught me that you have to do a few things, as a manager, to make your team work.

What challenges have you faced in your career and how have you overcome them? Being away from my family and in a different country where our education was not recognized; I had to do the confirmatory exams; we hadn’t lived or worked in Canada, we didn’t have Canadian work references, but everybody was asking for our Canadian references — that was tough. Also, learning a new language, speaking with an accent, you have to slow down, repeat, or communicate via paper. You think, “Maybe with this I will never be able to go any higher or achieve something more.” Working mostly with men creates some challenges. I have noticed that women are not always working on equal terms with men. Somehow you have to overcome this.

What qualities are necessary to be successful as an engineer? Persistence, creativity, and self-confidence. You need to have the attitude that if someone else can do it, you can do it, too.

Why do you believe women are still underrepresented in engineering? Because they don’t know what engineering is. I’m involved with Kid-Netic. Once a year around Women’s Day, we meet at the University of Manitoba. There are twenty girls in a group with three girls to one mentor, all of them engineers. We build a few projects. At the last one I attended, we built a boat out of cardboard and duct tape, went to the swimming pool, and put one of the members of our team into the boat to row the whole length of the pool. It was a lot of fun. At the beginning of the day, when we asked the girls what engineering was, they answered it is building bridges. When we asked whether they might want to become an engineer, ninety per cent said, “No way.” At the end of the day, after we did some projects and other fun things, fifty per cent said, “Yes, I would like to be an engineer because it’s fun.” If we introduce girls to engineering, show them the equipment, the technology, and have them try to design an experiment and see if it works, they will probably think, “I can totally do this.”

How can we encourage more young women to pursue engineering? We have to start in primary school. We have to go out to schools, share our work experiences, and make it practical. Introduce them to what the technology can do. The younger generation should be taught that there will be a lot of demand for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) graduates. When I was at university, we had two months of summer vacation. For three weeks every year, we had to go to industry for a practicum, including before first year. Meaning that if you were going into engineering, you had to go to a factory to see what engineering is about. The government paid for it because they wanted to introduce you to various types of industry. I think this was excellent. I would say if we are looking for any type of improvement in engineering education, even one-day visits to different companies would do magic. Sometimes young people, especially girls, think engineers just build bridges, that engineering is boring. They don’t realize how many different things engineers have touched, done, designed. In most cases, our lives are easier because of engineers.

What advice would you give a young woman interested in a STEM career? Find a mentor, don’t wait for somebody to assign you a mentor. It doesn’t have to be a woman, but it’s very important to have someone in your field. Be involved in the community. It is very rewarding. Try and try and be persistent. You have to plan what you want to achieve in life. If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. The other thing I like to share is that there are always options. Don’t be discouraged by failures. You can overcome any obstacle.

How can we encourage young people to persevere? Travel can teach young people a lot. It shows you that even if you plan, things might go in a different direction, and it teaches you to think very quickly and to be decisive. Life is like that. I would also say instilling flexibility is key. We need to transfer to the younger generation that they need to adjust to the situation. They have to realize that the world is not perfect, there are ups and downs.

How do you define innovation? Innovation is change of an existing idea, change for the sake of improvement. It is the introduction of either an idea or new device, material, technology to make life easier and safer. It is also introducing new ways of doing the same tasks that will make the job easier and faster. Innovation comes at a time when you’re thinking outside the box, when you use your imagination. An innovator is someone who is full of ideas, creative, and observant. An innovator also needs to be able to disagree with the pack. If you have justification, you feel something might work, dig deeper and prove that you are right.

How do you see yourself as an innovator? I am the most innovative at work in my problem solving. I improve techniques and come up with new procedures to make sure we have improved and are consistent in our approach. Learning from my mistakes gives me a little bit of motivation to be innovative and hopefully, I’m learning from someone else’s mistakes.

Was there anyone particularly innovative that inspired you growing up? Definitely my uncle. He was a huge influence. He had over fifty patents. We had a lot of discussions. If I was working on a project and it was frustrating because I couldn’t find the answer or the science didn’t prove itself, then I would call my uncle. First, he listened. He never gave me the answer right away, but he asked me additional questions. This allowed me to come up with ideas. I got my persistence from him. I would say, “I have an exam tomorrow, and I’m worried.” He was really tough and he would say, “You need to pass the exam, that’s it, there are no other options.” Now when I’m going for training or have to pass a test, I think I am going to do this training or pass the test because there are no other options. The last discussion I had with my uncle, two weeks before he passed away, we were on the phone for half an hour and he was talking to me about the next two patents he was working on. He said, “If something happens to me, I want you to continue. I don’t want anybody else to touch it, I want you to go through this.” It’s important to have a mentor who you can call at any time to get some feedback and encouragement, to say, “Don’t worry, try something else.”

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


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