Martin C. Barry
During an afternoon luncheon held at the Château Royal on Sunday March 5 to mark International Women’s Day, more than 100 members of the Hellenic Women’s Federation of Laval-Electra heard from a Laval woman who made her mark in the world and who offered advice on how others can advance in their careers and lives.
Although the Hellenic Women’s Federation-Electra holds an event like this every year, “this year we took it to another level,” association president Patricia Lagopatis said in an interview with the Laval News. “The organization is actually growing, so we’re very happy,” she added.
‘Bold for Change’
The theme of this year’s meeting was ‘Be Bold for Change.’ The keynote speaker was Dr. Hellen Christodoulou, executive-director for Quebec of the Canadian Institute of Steel Construction and a renowned expert in the design and maintenance of bridges, with more than 35 years experience in the domain.
“If there is one thing I can assure you it’s that the word ‘bold’ is not only a word to be used for change, but a word that has transcended over the years and has had a tremendous impact on women’s lives and their efforts for advancement, for respect, for equality and for justice,” Christodoulou said in a speech she delivered in Greek and English.
Christodoulou recalled that towards the beginning of her working life, she was one of only two female engineering graduates in a class of 85. The other woman subsequently decided to pursue a career in a field unrelated to engineering.
Male dominated field
Christodoulou said that the first life-changing moment for her came not long after she became a lead engineer for bridges at Canadian Pacific. It was also the first time that a woman occupied that important role with the company “and it broke every taboo in the book,” she added, referring to the fact bridge engineering was regarded as an almost all male field at that time.
Upon her return from a holiday in Greece that summer, her superior at CP confronted her over a bridge plan which contained a glaring mistake – a variation between the length of two steel beams. Christodoulou (who also holds law degrees as well as an MBA and consequently acquired the habit of carefully documenting everything) had saved her original plans.
A few minutes later, she showed them to the senior administrator while pointing out that the change was made by another engineer. Although he apologized, Christodoulou said she saw an opportunity in the circumstances and seized it: she quit.
Stand your ground
“He was floored,” she said regarding the boss’s reaction. The chief engineer called her a few days later to drop by his office to sit down and talk. “To make a long story short, he says ‘listen, I need you, you have to stay, so what do you want?’ So I named all sorts of things – more vacation, more pay, more whatever. And he says ‘done.’”
Christodoulou said the most important thing she learned from the experience was the value of stepping up. “It’s important that we have to stand our ground,” she said. A year later, the chief engineer retired.
From a staff of 50 engineers, he nominated her as his replacement and Christodoulou took over the department. “Slowly, I saw that the traditional view of women was changing. The traditional male-dominated views were a little bit fading. And we see this more and more today.”
Credibility and merit
Christodoulou said that in all her years as an engineer, “I have witnessed first-hand that women can choose to succeed by many other means. However, I believe that true dignified success is only with credibility and merit. No lies, no backstabbing, no hypocrisy, and certainly not by questionable morality. It’s a choice we make and it’s a choice by which we’ll be judged.”
Among those attending last Sunday’s event were a number of women who’ve made their mark in the world of politics. They included Laval city councillor for Chomedey Aglaia Revelakis, Vimy Liberal MP Eva Nassif, Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board Ward 8 commissioner Vicky Kaliotzakis and former Ahuntsic Liberal MP Eleni Bakopanos (who was the first Greek-born woman to be elected to Canada’s Parliament).