Concordia engineering school becomes first in Canada named after a woman as alumna donates $15-million

Concordia engineering school becomes first in Canada named after a woman as alumna donates $15-million
Concordia Universitys engineering school is first in Canada to be named after a woman
Donor Gina Parvaneh Cody, who is gifting Concordia University with a $15 million donation, was the first woman to earn a PhD degree in building engineering from Concordia University.

Gina Cody arrived in Montreal with $2,000 in her pocket and little more than a dream to become an engineer. It was 1979. Her homeland of Iran was in the throes of a revolution, and she escaped on the last flight out.

Concordia names engineering school after Gina Cody, a first for women in Canada

Overwhelmed and lonely, she got a toehold in her new country thanks to a scholarship in engineering at Concordia University in Montreal. Forty years later, a successful career behind her, Dr. Cody is giving back.

The 61-year-old is donating $15-million to her alma mater, a gift that will be used to increase diversity in a traditionally male-dominated field. The Gina Cody School of Engineering and Computer Science becomes the first engineering faculty in Canada – and one of the first internationally – to be named after a woman.

I have a message for all the young girls around the world who have been told engineering and computers are for boys only, Dr. Cody said on Monday in a campus ceremony. Hear me now – my name is Gina Cody and I am a woman and I am an engineer. This is my school and I say engineering and computer science is for everyone, regardless of gender, ethnicity or wealth.

Dr. Cody becomes a potent symbol of generosity and success by a new Canadian as immigration is dominating political discussions in Quebec. One of the main parties in Mondays election, the Coalition Avenir Québec, wants to reduce immigration and test newcomers for values and French.

There will now be chairs specializing in data analytics and artificial intelligence, "the internet of things" and "Internet 4.0" and advanced manufacturing. 

Dr. Cody, who lives in Toronto, says she is aware of the debates and hopes her story will illustrate how immigrants contribute to the province.

It is a priority for CBC to create a website that is accessible to all Canadians including people with visual, hearing, motor and cognitive challenges.

Im hoping that I can send the right message to change those who feel we [immigrants] are a burden, Dr. Cody said in an interview. I believe there are many immigrants like me who are part of this society. And they are giving back.

The title is in recognition of a $15-million donation Cody has made to the school, the largest personal donation in Concordia's history.

This province was great to me, she said. I have never forgotten that. I live in Toronto, but Im coming back to Montreal to give back to the city that started me off.

"I arrived in Canada as a young student from Iran in 1979 with $2,000," Cody said in a news release sent by the university. 

The gift will endow three research chairs and offer scholarships aimed at boosting diversity in a field in which women remain the exception. Women account for only 20 per cent of students in undergraduate engineering programs in Canada and fewer than 13 per cent of working engineers.

The gift will also help fund scholarships and research on smart cities and allow for the creation of three new chairs in the faculty.

Growing up in Iran, Dr. Cody – who also goes by Gina Parvaneh Cody – benefited from parents who supported and encouraged her. Her father had her teach during summers at the boys high school he owned. Her mother told her the only way to become independent as a woman was through education.

The university says it will be dedicating part of the money to creating a fund for equity, diversity and inclusion programming. 

Dr. Cody got her masters degree at Concordia and, in 1989, became the first woman at the university to earn a PhD in building engineering. She eventually became executive chair and principal shareholder of CCI Group Inc., an engineering consulting firm. She sold her company and retired in 2016.

The goal in lending her name to the school, Cody says, is to help break down barriers for women in engineering. 

Since the mid-1980s, the percentage of female donors to philanthropic causes has been expanding. Women tripled the value of their donations between 1985 and 2014, while those by men roughly doubled, according to Imagine Canada.

Only 20 per cent of university engineering students in the country are women, according to Engineers Canada. 

New Canadians are also offering gifts to their alma maters for research chairs, schools, labs and scholarships.

"My gift to the university is for the next generation, so that more people can succeed like I did."

Dr. Cody represents a growing commitment [among immigrants] to giving back, but also paying it forward through higher education, said Krishan Mehta, a researcher in Toronto on immigrant philanthropy and a volunteer with the Association of Fundraising Professionals.

“The goal is that in 10 to 15 years, there will be so many examples like me that I am forgotten. I hope there will be so many women in science, engineering and technology that it’s no longer an issue.”

Dr. Codys gift to Concordia will annually support four PhD entrance scholarships of $20,000 each, and 10 undergraduate entrance scholarships of $5,000 each. A fund of $250,000 will go toward unspecified measures to increase the presence of women and minorities in the faculty. Dr. Cody said she hopes that one day she will no longer be exceptional in engineering. My hope is that a few years from now, there will be so many women like me that I will be forgotten.

Her donation will go to supporting next-gen research into smart cities and establish three chairs in data analytics and artificial intelligence, internet of things and industry 4.0 and advance manufacturing.

As a rookie engineer in the late 1980s, Gina Parvaneh Cody attended a conference in Toronto that she will never forget.

Cody, a business leader, engineer and philanthropist, arrived in Canada from Iran in 1979, earning a PhD in building engineering — the first woman to do so at Concordia.

The conference was about tower cranes, but that’s not what made it memorable. The moment that has now crystallized in her memory is when the MC opened his mouth to greet the crowd of 700 people: “Lady and gentleman,” he began, “good evening.”

“There was one woman. It was me,” Cody recently recalled, speaking from her North York home. “I still remember that.”

Concordia president Alan Shepard called Cody a role model, describing her generosity as a “watershed moment for engineering and computer science in Canada.”

Since moving to Canada from Iran in 1979 to pursue her master’s degree, Cody has been a trailblazer in the male-dominated field of engineering: she was the first woman to earn a PhD in building engineering from Concordia University and the first to scale Toronto’s construction cranes as a machine inspector. She enjoyed a successful career spanning three decades that saw her collect accolades and ascend to the executive chair position at her engineering firm, which Profit magazine once named one of Canada’s most profitable woman-owned companies.

Concordia University alumna Gina Cody has made a historic $15-million donation to the school’s Faculty of Engineering and Computer Science.

Now, two years after her retirement, Cody is making her mark on the industry once again. On Monday, Concordia University announced that it will be renaming its engineering faculty the Gina Cody School of Engineering and Computer Science — making it the first engineering school in Canada (and one of the few worldwide) to be named after a woman.

“University is a platform for women, people of colour, Indigenous populations and other minorities to pursue their dreams,” she said.

The announcement comes on the heels of a $15-million donation Cody made to the engineering faculty to promote equity, diversity and inclusion — funds that will be matched in part by Concordia to create programming dedicated to these issues.

The gift will also support student scholarships, research on smart cities, and the creation of three academic chairs: in data analytics and artificial intelligence, the “internet of things,” and Industry 4.0 and advanced manufacturing.

Her gift is the largest to date and supports the Campaign for Concordia: Next-Gen to fund research and scholarships.

“The name change is a reflection of our desire to achieve equity, diversity and inclusion with a particular emphasis on gender balance,” said Amir Asif, dean of the engineering faculty, in a press release. “Gina will be a perfect role model for young women and inspire them to join this exciting profession.”

Throughout her career, Cody has yearned to see more women thriving in the professional field she loves. Across Canada, only 20 per cent of university engineering students are women, according to Engineers Canada. (At Concordia, 23 per cent of engineering and computer science students in the last academic year were women.)

By the time these students enter the job market, the numbers grow even bleaker: currently, women make up only 12.8 per cent of the country’s working engineers, according to Statistics Canada.

Many barriers are systemic but Cody also believes girls need more women role models in the field. That’s why she agreed to lend her name to Concordia’s engineering school and insisted it always include the “Gina” and never be shortened to “Cody” — an uncharacteristic decision for a person whom friends describe as understated.

“I’m trying to send a message,” Cody said. “I think it will break that fear that engineering and computer science is for boys. I’m hoping kids at school, when they hear it, will say, ‘Oh, it’s a woman’s name!’ and it will matter.”

Growing up in Tehran, Cody was always handy as a child and often wound up fixing the broken furniture and televisions in her home. Engineering is something of a calling in her family: her father ran a private school for boys but also worked in construction, and all three of her brothers grew up to become engineers, leaving only her sister, who became a dentist instead. (One of Cody’s two daughters is now studying engineering, while the other is in law school.)

Cody never thought of engineering as a dream beyond her reach. In fact, both of her parents encouraged her to pursue her education in whatever field she desired — especially her mother, whose own education ended at Grade 11. “She used to tell me that the only way for a woman to have independence is to have an education,” Cody said. “That (stayed) in my brain.”

Cody got her degree in structural engineering at Iran’s top university and in 1979 she moved to Canada to pursue her master’s at McGill University.

But when she landed in Montreal, clutching $2,000 in traveller’s cheques, she was met by her brother, who was then studying at Concordia. He convinced her to meet with one of his engineering professors, Cedric Marsh, and Cody agreed.

After a lengthy meeting, which clearly left Marsh impressed, the professor suggested to Cody that she change her plans. Why don’t you come to Concordia instead? he asked, also throwing in a scholarship to cover her $4,000 tuition. “It was a dream come true,” she said.

Her encounter with Marsh changed the course of her life and career. At Concordia, Cody learned the skills that became the foundation for a successful 30-year career in engineering; she also met her future husband and the father of her two daughters, Thomas Cody, who is now retired from his position as senior vice-president with the Bank of America Canada.

At Concordia, Cody’s initial focus was on earthquake engineering and this work brought her to Peru, where she collaborated with Marsh on a Canadian government-funded project to improve housing for people in earthquake-prone areas.

After graduating, she moved to Toronto, where the booming job market lured several of her engineering classmates. Cody spent a year working for Ontario’s Ministry of Housing, where she helped shape the province’s building codes.

Her first private sector job was with an engineering consulting company called Construction Control, where she was trained to perform crane inspections — an often harrowing job that involved climbing the sky-high machines to inspect every nut and bolt.

Cody says she was the only woman in Toronto doing this type of work at the time. She remembers climbing down a crane one day in the middle of winter, only to be confronted by an astonished construction worker. “He said, ‘Why don’t you learn to type? You don’t have to do this hard work at -30 degrees,” she said. “I don’t think he meant it in the wrong way. He was genuine, but that was the view and vision. That women are weak.”

Before long, Cody was scaling the ranks at her company, which was renamed CCI Group in 2013 (after a 2016 merger, the company now operates under McIntosh Perry Consulting Engineers). She eventually became its president and CEO, retiring in 2016 as executive chair and principal shareholder.

Throughout her career, Cody was also a prolific volunteer, serving on various boards, associations and organizations, including Professional Engineers Ontario, the industry’s regulatory and licensing body. “She’s a trailblazer,” said Johnny Zuccon, the organization’s interim registrar. “Whatever she took on, she’d go beyond what was required and always delivered on deadline.”

Under her watch, CCI was recognized by the Financial Post as one of Canada’s best-managed companies and in 2010, Profit magazine — which called Cody one of the country’s top women entrepreneurs — listed it as the ninth most profitable Canadian company owned by a woman.

Cody said she has always tried to support women in her industry, where dismissive and discriminatory attitudes continue to lurk. She thinks back to times when people would mistake her as someone’s assistant, or to the older men who clearly resented seeing a woman at the front of the room.

During her time at the helm of CCI, female representation on staff grew to between 20 and 25 per cent, she noted in a 2013 interview with Concordia University Magazine — a relatively high number in an industry where less than 13 per cent are currently women.

Cody now hopes to continue supporting women engineers through her donation to Concordia. She said she’s always wanted to give back to the university because she’s grateful for the opportunities it gave her when she first arrived in Canada. She hopes, in part, that her donation will also change some of the negative attitudes she now sees towards immigrants. “We cherish Canada. We want to give back.”

But more than anything, she wants the Gina Cody School of Engineering and Computer Science to send a message to young girls and women — that they, too, belong in these professions, should they choose to pursue them.

“I don’t want to be the only woman in the room,” she said. “My mission is having more women in this field. That’s what I want to see.”

Jennifer Yang is a Toronto-based reporter covering identity and inequality. Follow her on Twitter: @jyangstar

As a rookie engineer in the late 1980s, Gina Parvaneh Cody attended a conference in Toronto that she will never forget.

The conference was about tower cranes, but that’s not what made it memorable. The moment that has now crystallized in her memory is when the MC opened his mouth to greet the crowd of 700 people: “Lady and gentleman,” he began, “good evening.”

“There was one woman. It was me,” Cody recently recalled, speaking from her North York home. “I still remember that.”

Since moving to Canada from Iran in 1979 to pursue her master’s degree, Cody has been a trailblazer in the male-dominated field of engineering: she was the first woman to earn a PhD in building engineering from Concordia University and the first to scale Toronto’s construction cranes as a machine inspector. She enjoyed a successful career spanning three decades that saw her collect accolades and ascend to the executive chair position at her engineering firm, which Profit magazine once named one of Canada’s most profitable woman-owned companies.

Now, two years after her retirement, Cody is making her mark on the industry once again. On Monday, Concordia University announced that it will be renaming its engineering faculty the Gina Cody School of Engineering and Computer Science — making it the first engineering school in Canada (and one of the few worldwide) to be named after a woman.

The announcement comes on the heels of a $15-million donation Cody made to the engineering faculty to promote equity, diversity and inclusion — funds that will be matched in part by Concordia to create programming dedicated to these issues.

The gift will also support student scholarships, research on smart cities, and the creation of three academic chairs: in data analytics and artificial intelligence, the “internet of things,” and Industry 4.0 and advanced manufacturing.

“The name change is a reflection of our desire to achieve equity, diversity and inclusion with a particular emphasis on gender balance,” said Amir Asif, dean of the engineering faculty, in a press release. “Gina will be a perfect role model for young women and inspire them to join this exciting profession.”

Throughout her career, Cody has yearned to see more women thriving in the professional field she loves. Across Canada, only 20 per cent of university engineering students are women, according to Engineers Canada. (At Concordia, 23 per cent of engineering and computer science students in the last academic year were women.)

By the time these students enter the job market, the numbers grow even bleaker: currently, women make up only 12.8 per cent of the country’s working engineers, according to Statistics Canada.

Many barriers are systemic but Cody also believes girls need more women role models in the field. That’s why she agreed to lend her name to Concordia’s engineering school and insisted it always include the “Gina” and never be shortened to “Cody” — an uncharacteristic decision for a person whom friends describe as understated.

“I’m trying to send a message,” Cody said. “I think it will break that fear that engineering and computer science is for boys. I’m hoping kids at school, when they hear it, will say, ‘Oh, it’s a woman’s name!’ and it will matter.”

Growing up in Tehran, Cody was always handy as a child and often wound up fixing the broken furniture and televisions in her home. Engineering is something of a calling in her family: her father ran a private school for boys but also worked in construction, and all three of her brothers grew up to become engineers, leaving only her sister, who became a dentist instead. (One of Cody’s two daughters is now studying engineering, while the other is in law school.)

Cody never thought of engineering as a dream beyond her reach. In fact, both of her parents encouraged her to pursue her education in whatever field she desired — especially her mother, whose own education ended at Grade 11. “She used to tell me that the only way for a woman to have independence is to have an education,” Cody said. “That (stayed) in my brain.”

Cody got her degree in structural engineering at Iran’s top university and in 1979 she moved to Canada to pursue her master’s at McGill University.

But when she landed in Montreal, clutching $2,000 in traveller’s cheques, she was met by her brother, who was then studying at Concordia. He convinced her to meet with one of his engineering professors, Cedric Marsh, and Cody agreed.

After a lengthy meeting, which clearly left Marsh impressed, the professor suggested to Cody that she change her plans. Why don’t you come to Concordia instead? he asked, also throwing in a scholarship to cover her $4,000 tuition. “It was a dream come true,” she said.

Her encounter with Marsh changed the course of her life and career. At Concordia, Cody learned the skills that became the foundation for a successful 30-year career in engineering; she also met her future husband and the father of her two daughters, Thomas Cody, who is now retired from his position as senior vice-president with the Bank of America Canada.

At Concordia, Cody’s initial focus was on earthquake engineering and this work brought her to Peru, where she collaborated with Marsh on a Canadian government-funded project to improve housing for people in earthquake-prone areas.

After graduating, she moved to Toronto, where the booming job market lured several of her engineering classmates. Cody spent a year working for Ontario’s Ministry of Housing, where she helped shape the province’s building codes.

Her first private sector job was with an engineering consulting company called Construction Control, where she was trained to perform crane inspections — an often harrowing job that involved climbing the sky-high machines to inspect every nut and bolt.

Cody says she was the only woman in Toronto doing this type of work at the time. She remembers climbing down a crane one day in the middle of winter, only to be confronted by an astonished construction worker. “He said, ‘Why don’t you learn to type? You don’t have to do this hard work at -30 degrees,” she said. “I don’t think he meant it in the wrong way. He was genuine, but that was the view and vision. That women are weak.”

Before long, Cody was scaling the ranks at her company, which was renamed CCI Group in 2013 (after a 2016 merger, the company now operates under McIntosh Perry Consulting Engineers). She eventually became its president and CEO, retiring in 2016 as executive chair and principal shareholder.

Throughout her career, Cody was also a prolific volunteer, serving on various boards, associations and organizations, including Professional Engineers Ontario, the industry’s regulatory and licensing body. “She’s a trailblazer,” said Johnny Zuccon, the organization’s interim registrar. “Whatever she took on, she’d go beyond what was required and always delivered on deadline.”

Under her watch, CCI was recognized by the Financial Post as one of Canada’s best-managed companies and in 2010, Profit magazine — which called Cody one of the country’s top women entrepreneurs — listed it as the ninth most profitable Canadian company owned by a woman.

Cody said she has always tried to support women in her industry, where dismissive and discriminatory attitudes continue to lurk. She thinks back to times when people would mistake her as someone’s assistant, or to the older men who clearly resented seeing a woman at the front of the room.

During her time at the helm of CCI, female representation on staff grew to between 20 and 25 per cent, she noted in a 2013 interview with Concordia University Magazine — a relatively high number in an industry where less than 13 per cent are currently women.

Cody now hopes to continue supporting women engineers through her donation to Concordia. She said she’s always wanted to give back to the university because she’s grateful for the opportunities it gave her when she first arrived in Canada. She hopes, in part, that her donation will also change some of the negative attitudes she now sees towards immigrants. “We cherish Canada. We want to give back.”

But more than anything, she wants the Gina Cody School of Engineering and Computer Science to send a message to young girls and women — that they, too, belong in these professions, should they choose to pursue them.

“I don’t want to be the only woman in the room,” she said. “My mission is having more women in this field. That’s what I want to see.”

Jennifer Yang is a Toronto-based reporter covering identity and inequality. Follow her on Twitter: @jyangstar