A fresh start: getting to know Frida Nematzade
Immigrating to a new country brings both benefits and challenges. In her own words, Frida Nematzade, Englobe Team Lead, Building Sciences group, describes her journey and outlines her experiences as a female engineer in both countries.
Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and length.
Q: Why did you decide to go into engineering?
My mom really wanted me to be a physician, but from day one I loved construction. I remember when I was five or six years old, I would find pieces of wood and hammer them with nails to build desks and chairs – or at least try to!
Eventually, this passion led me to university where I majored in electrical engineering. After a year, I switched to civil and was super happy about my decision. Working with buildings – studying their construction, and how they could be improved – it was like my version of grown-up Lego. It was exciting and never felt like work.
Q: What was your experience working as a woman in the engineering industry, in Iran?
To say working as a female engineer in Iran is challenging does not appropriately capture the experience. As an expert, qualified engineer, and project designer, who was confident in my abilities and knowledge of key project details, I would be dismissed or ignored completely. I was second tier and never fully respected as a professional.
The engineering industry is male dominated and unfortunately the decisionmakers of the Regime consciously and actively exclude women from leadership roles often promoting gender apartheid. As such, there are not many women in leadership roles. During my work as a structural engineer, I was enthusiastic and good at my job. Clients would specifically request to have me as their structural designer for their projects; however, I was never given the opportunity to take the lead since city examiners or site teams resisted following the designs or directions provided by women engineers. I even experienced comments made about my professional outfit or choice of make up. So, I had to always work under the supervision of male engineers to be able to get approval for my designs.
This sort of daily struggle impacted my self confidence and for a short time I started to believe that I was not good enough to be a leader. However, eventually I learned to trust myself and accept that I was doing the best that was possible. I learned that it was not about me; it was the female experience in a male dominated industry that prevented women, like me, from flourishing.
Q: What was the immigration experience like for you?
The immigration process itself was very difficult and long but the decision to walk away from the only home you have known, your family and their support in hopes of finding ‘better’ is heart wrenching. The smallest chores like opening a bank account to reading street names, is a new scary experience that takes a toll. If my parents did not raise me to be so determined and eager to overcome all challenges, I would not be as successful as I am today.
I remember when I found my first job I applied for my P.Eng at the same time. It was a huge undertaking with lots of paperwork and long hours. It was tough but not impossible and I was never hopeless because I refused to fail and knew I was in a country where my hard work would be rewarded.
I kept working as a structural engineer and became increasingly familiar with building science theories, which is an important part of building health and performance here in Canada. So, I started to work in this industry more and became involved in these types of projects. It led to my Master’s degree which was one of the best decisions that I ever made.
During this time, I was going to school, working full-time, and pregnant. Life was not easy but giving up was never an option and I am proud of myself for persevering. This determination is part of my identify and it comes with me to work everyday to the benefit of my clients, colleagues, and team.
Q: How did your experience as a female engineer in Canada differ from Iran?
Overall, everything is much smoother here and there is a lot more women engineers in the industry. But there are still challenges and it can be frustrating that sometimes if I send a woman to a job site, there may be more complications with the contractors. As a leader, it’s heartbreaking to witness this because I know women internalize these issues and even blame themselves.
As an example, on most roofing projects, contractors have yet to be comfortable with a woman on site leading. The good thing is that we are in a country where even though the roofer may not want to listen to a woman, their manager / supervisor knows who the expert is. They see that what you’re telling them makes sense, and they begin to trust you. It is a longer process because you must work twice as hard to build their trust before they take you seriously whereas a man doesn’t have to do anything ‘extra’.
Life was not easy but giving up was never an option and I am proud of myself for persevering.
Q. What is your leadership style?
We all are busy and it’s sometimes easy to lose site of the importance of building a connection. There is value in taking the time to get to know my staff on a personal level, to better understand their unique personality type. I have a diverse team of people and instead of trying to align everyone with how I react or manage situations, I try to embrace their strengths to the overall betterment of the team. I really try to make sure that my team is always working on something that will both interest and challenge them. The goal is to find ways to allow them to grow, have fun, and feel challenged. A normal workday is around 8 hours so, 1/3rd of a day is spent at work. That is why it’s very important that you enjoy your projects, your work environment, your leaders, and your colleagues. I want my staff to enjoy their life.
Q: We know you are very passionate about your work, but what do you do in your spare time?
You are right, I am very passionate about my career, but when not working I enjoy spending time with my family and cooking, which is a huge passion of mine. Outside of that, my heart has always in many ways remained in Iran and with the recent social unrest I dedicate a lot of my time to following the news.
Over the past seven months, there has been a spark ignited in my home country and the first ever women-led revolution has started. This “Women, Life, Freedom” movement started after a 22-year-old woman was killed by the morality police because a few strands of her hair were exposed.
This was the spark that ignited the 44 years of pent-up anger of the female population to boil up on to the streets. The women at the front lines are fighting for their rights, their freedoms, and their male allies are coming out to support and defend their daughters, mothers, sisters, neighbours, colleagues. It’s not about religion or dress code, it is about capable women who are tired of being overlooked and of not having basic human rights. We all want the same thing - respect, equality, an end to gender apartheid rules, and control of our own bodies. It is the same struggle across the globe for all women everywhere, in big and small ways we all want better.
I remember when TIME Magazine recognized their bravery as “Heroes of the Year” for 2022, in December, I was very emotional. I felt seen. These young girls are standing in front of bullets and batons with no fear. I am beyond inspired by this generation of Iranians.
For 44 years, so many people have left Iran hoping to find a safe place for themselves and their families. To live in a country where human life matters, where everyone’s wellbeing matters.
We have a strong Iranian community at Englobe and every one of us is in pain witnessing the struggles and are constantly worried about the safety of family and friends who remain in Iran. The Iranians abroad make every effort to raise awareness and give a voice to people in Iran. It’s our duty to talk about it, spread awareness, and foster support.
In fact, I think it is our obligation as humans to be kind, caring and empathetic to one another when there is so much intersection of experience across borders. I invite everyone to stand with the Iranian people and be their voices by learning about what is happening and lending their support no matter how big or small. The future is being made today and we can build it better.
Frida Nematzade, B.Eng., M.Sc., P.Eng., is a Team Lead with Englobe’s Building Sciences Group in Toronto.