Industry Insights: The Intersection of Diverse Leadership

Sept. 19, 2023
Canada, U.S. leaders speak out on their DEI journey.

The face of transit is changing in North America. Our industry is becoming more inclusive, more balanced and more representative of the diverse populations of our clients and the communities we work in.

It’s a slow transition, as previously marginalized groups are being recruited and retained as professionals in our business but we are seeing it happen in corporate offices and municipal boardrooms across Canada and the United States.

At our company, WSP, we are fortunate to have many leaders who are breaking glass ceilings and ushering in this important change in our industry. As an example, two female executives who have navigated the corporate landscape to climb to senior roles, lead their organizations, participate boldly in industry associations and provided mentorship and sponsorship for the next generation to continue their progress.

Understanding the current DEI climate

As the company’s global rail and transit leader, Jennifer Verellen is attuned to how issues of diversity, equity and inclusion differ depending on geographic location and political climates. This knowledge allows her to effectively conduct business with clients from around the globe.

“The principles of diversity, equity and inclusion are universal. However, I do tailor the implementation to account for local societal norms and professional cultures. Some regions require a more concentrated effort to ensure the value of DEI is well-understood, whereas other regions, including Canada, require a focus on allyship and sponsorship. I provide opportunities for all regions to share their DEI initiatives and successes at my global meetings and conferences. This knowledge-sharing is very important and cuts through the cultural gaps,” said Verellen.

Jannet Walker-Ford, senior vice president and national transit and rail business line leader for WSP USA, is also the chair of WTS International, the organization that works to advance women in the transportation industry. Her experience working with WTS has helped her understand that to be successful, decisions to take action on DEI issues must be intentional.

“I recently joined a board that was traditionally all males. Recognizing a lack of diversity, important changes to the board were made. It was intentional in rectifying a gap, adding missing voices and insights and including broader representation. Our board has been a beacon for advocacy and other boards are noticing and following suit,” said Ford.

With an appreciation for how DEI is impacting the sector both in corporate and association settings, these women are taking actions that allow for positive progress to be made that open new opportunities for under-represented populations in the industry.

Creating positive interactions

Helping women from under-represented populations thrive is something that both Ford and Verellen are doing on a daily business through their discussions with their teams.

For Ford, it’s the continuation of the idea of being intentional and how that permeates at the team level. In her experience, it was especially something that had to be introduced to the hiring process, removing the potential for conscious and unconscious biases to dictate who would be the newest individual added to the team.

“As soon as I joined WSP, the first thing I said to my male leaders, as it relates to hiring was, I expect you and your direct reports are taking that additional step and time to ensure a diverse pool of candidates before you make offers, so, before it comes to me for approval, I’m assuming that you’ve done that. We’ve got to be intentional about how our teams are showing up and how they represent the clients and communities we serve in all aspects. This is important to WSP and to my team as we work to attract the best and brightest in our industry. We get excited when we attract phenomenal woman or minority candidates for roles in transit and rail leading to a more diverse and competitive team,” Ford said.

In Verellen’s case, being a leader of both national and international teams in her role, it takes doing the work necessary to ensure people are engaged, heard, and understood, to then know how better to support and sponsor the members of her team from under-represented groups.

“I have been actively engaging by being an ally for underrepresented groups to challenge biases and promote inclusivity in the industry. This involves listening, learning and empathizing with individuals from marginalized communities, especially making sure the team consists of diverse members from the underrepresented groups, members of the LGBTQ2SA+ and indigenous communities,” Verellen said. “I go beyond allyship and actively sponsor individuals from underrepresented backgrounds. This involves providing guidance, mentorship and career opportunities to diverse employees, particularly those who may face systemic barriers to advancement such as women in engineering or neurodiverse individuals. By leveraging my position, I help talented individuals gain visibility, access to networks and opportunities for growth within the organization.”

These interactions, at the individual and team levels, help to develop DEI values throughout the workplace, leading by example to demonstrate the value of creating diverse teams that better serve our clients and our communities.

Engaging the next generation

One of the greatest challenges facing DEI growth in the sector has nothing to do with biases or career growth; it’s appreciating how to engage the next generation of under-represented individuals to the industry. From Ford’s perspective, it starts with changing how and when we engage students.

“I have been advocating that we go beyond ages 12-17 in terms of our focus for our programming as an example. It’s often too late to start attracting young girls to our industry and especially young girls of color where the is an underrepresentation,” Ford said. “We have to be more intentional about going to them, going to historically black colleges and universities and others to recruit young girls as an example, but also, going to communities where young girls may not know about broad array of careers in science, technology, engineering and math, WTS or accessibility to either. I passionately believe five-year-olds are not too young to start to showcase the profession and its possibilities, so they can see role models who look like them.”

Once we get them into internships, get them onto our teams, the work begins to retain them as valuable members of our respective companies and understanding their vital importance to our work.

“When we understand our teammates through diverse lenses, we open communication, leading to innovation and creativity. Making people feel welcome no matter what race, religion, sexual orientation or gender enables teams to get wider perspectives and input for faster problem-solving,” Verellen said. “Creating open and diverse teams brings people together with emotional connections to each other resulting in a strong commitment to deliver and contribute to team success. Allyship results in higher-performing teams where people look forward to working together.”


Mavara Turab is a senior project manager, Rail and Transit, for WSP in Canada. Dana Nassif is a rail systems engineer for WSP in Canada.