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You can reshape the mold and learn to fly—and I’m proof of that

November 22, 2018

By Denise Pothier

My journey growing up in rural Nova Scotia, battling self-doubt, and making my mark in a male-dominated profession

Do you remember the angst of school photos? Was your hair a mess because you had gym class just before the photoshoot? Despite your best efforts, did you manage to get your shirt dirty? For the most part, I don’t recall much about my school photos. Except for my Grade 3 picture. Just before that photoshoot—without my parents’ or teacher’s knowledge—I applied talcum powder to my face. I didn’t do this because I was sweaty from gym class, or because of a dare. I did it because I thought I wasn’t pretty because of my dark hair and complexion. I didn’t fit the mold of what was being portrayed as beautiful during that time, and I wanted to look pretty for my school photo.

What does this have to do with being named one of Canada’s Most Powerful Women in 2018 by WXN in the CIBC Trailblazers & Trendsetters category? Well, trailblazers are described as those who forge new paths for themselves and others—but it’s much more than that. It’s also about reshaping the mold, finding a different approach to doing things, and challenging what is accepted as conventional. Most importantly, it’s about being socially innovative and building a better world for all.

Denise’s Grade 3 school photo. She applied talcum powder to her face before this picture was taken.

Breaking traditional barriers

Growing up in Lower Eel Brook, a rural community in Yarmouth County, Nova Scotia, was an absolute gift. Much of rural Nova Scotia, including Yarmouth County, is viewed as one of the poorest areas in the country. But it is rich beyond words in many other ways. I grew up with a true sense of community. Sustainability was important to our way of life. Resiliency was part of our culture. Volunteering, and helping those in need, was encouraged. 

Upon reflection, I have broken many traditional barriers. As a young girl like other women in my family, being a schoolteacher or a nurse would have been a natural expectation for me. When my high school teacher looked beyond “the mold” and recognized my talents in science, however, he suggested that I pursue engineering.  Thankfully, my parents also looked beyond biases and ideals of traditional versus non-traditional, and they supported my pursuit of an education in engineering.

My university classes were larger than the population of the community that I grew up in.

University was a complete culture shock for me. When I arrived at university, far from my community and support system, I felt very alone. I certainly didn’t fit “the mold.” My classes were larger than the population of the community that I grew up in. No one spoke French. And, I was one of only a handful of women in the engineering program—of which only two thirds would go on to graduate. There were many moments where my confidence wavered, and I truthfully didn’t think that I would graduate. These crises of confidence were always met with words of encouragement and reassurance from my parents—my original mentors.

Reshaping the mold

Reshaping the mold requires you to be resilient, and I owe much of my resilience to my parents, family, and community. They helped me build a strong foundation. Later in my career, I have found an extended network and work family that continue to mentor, support, and encourage me—allies in reshaping the mold. Surrounding myself with trusted allies and mentors provided me with the confidence to personally stretch and accept assignments that were outside my comfort level. I believe that all these opportunities, both big and small, have led to this recognition. 

Being a woman in engineering can be a challenge, as oftentimes you are the only woman working on a project, in a boardroom, or on a construction site. One of the biggest hurdles for me, when I was starting my career, was finding personal protective equipment (PPE) that fit me and met the requirements of my work. My choice for steel-toed footwear were high heels or men’s boots. I opted for the men’s boots and wore two pairs of thick socks to make them fit. This may seem like a silly thing to remember, but it was yet another small reminder that I didn’t fit “the mold.”

Denise posing with Elder Geri Musqua-LeBlanc (middle) and Harriet Burdett-Moulton during National Indigenous Peoples Day activity at Stantec’s Dartmouth, NS, office in June 2018.

Women in engineering

Only 12% of engineers in Canada are female. This is changing, but retention is a challenge. As past Chair of the Women In Engineering Committee, I started a mentorship program for junior engineers, professionals, and students. This is having a positive impact on the entire profession by creating a greater sense of community, discussing professional challenges, supporting women in the field, and increasing the retention of women.

Now, I am a member of the Engineers Canada Equitable Participation Committee, and the Chair of the Indigenous Peoples Participation in Engineering Committee. It is an honor to serve on these national committees and be part of influencing change across the entire country. 

I’ve long been a supporter of women in the engineering profession, acting as a mentor to peers and junior engineers, as well as promoting the profession to youth. My photo—without the talcum powder—and biography are posted in classrooms across Nova Scotia to encourage pursuing a career in chemical engineering. I have had the opportunity to speak on many “Diversity in STEM” panels for academia, industry, and government.

Denise moderating the Indigenous Women in Business panel at the Cando conference earlier this year.

Trailblazing and trendsetting

The Trailblazers and Trendsetters award is a celebration of not fitting “the mold.” For many, “you can’t be what you can’t see” is still an everyday reality. Those feelings of self-doubt extend well beyond elementary school insecurities. They find their way into our schoolwork, our social activities, our offices, and our boardrooms. Those doubts haunt us when we feel that we are not “enough.” 

I can tell you that it is an honor and a privilege to be named a trailblazer and a trendsetter, but it is also far more than that—it is a responsibility, and one that I take very seriously. 

Thanks to those who have helped me learn to fly and who inspire and support me in reshaping the mold: M. Philip Doucet, Peter, Brian, Holly, Judy, Mike, Paul, Kev, Heather, Rosie, Anna, Arylene, Mia, Audra, Megan, Harriett, Dan, Tammy, Nikki, Adam, Abby, Cathy, Paula, Tania, Jenn, Jess, Rosalie, Amy, Genanne, Len, WIE, Kaya, Angela, Wayne, Gill, Renee, Brita, Dora, Cassandra, EPiEC, IPPiE, Techsploration and Indspire alumni, Claire, Carrie, Keith, Andrea, Jill, Shelley, Bronwyn, Nancy, Rachel, Gelare, Amber, Ena, Kristy, Austin, Lincoln, Owen, Ian, Bill, Angel, Yvon, Nathan, Elder Geri, Mom, Dad, David, and Sabrina. I love you all, and I share this recognition with you.

  • Denise Pothier

    Denise is passionate about quality, professional practice, keeping people safe, and the protection of the environment

    Contact Denise
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