Gina Cody, the first woman in Concordia’s history to earn a PhD in engineering, has a faculty named after her
Iranian-Canadian Gina Cody has gone from becoming the first woman in Concordia’s history to earn a PhD in engineering to having the Faculty of Engineering and Computer Science at the university renamed in her honor.
Iran l969: It’s two am and 13-year-old Gina Cody is bent over her physics book, on a mission to perfection. She stifles a yawn as she wrestles with one problem after another. Beside her, Cody’s mother puts down her novel and cuts some apples to keep her daughter awake. She doesn’t understand Cody’s scribbles, but the woman who never completed high school prizes education above all else. Especially for her daughters. “Don’t worry if you’re staying up all night,” she’d say. “You (are) building the foundation for your future.”
Her mother would know. The naturally “very strong” woman yearned to accomplish more than housework and encouraged her daughters to choose their own destinies. Cody’s father, a teacher, agreed. “My parents…measured their happiness by the mark I brought home,” she says. Her desire to please them stoked her own ambition.
The young woman was a natural fit in the field of engineering. She had always been handy, fixing the family’s broken television and other damaged belongings. “It’s very satisfying,” she says. Her logical mindset would later help her pinpoint the reason for a building’s deficiency. “The minute I find the cause, I will find the solution,” says Cody.
She enrolled at the Sharif University of Technology in Iran, graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in structural engineering. Setting her sights on higher education, she came to Montreal on a student visa in 1979, to attend McGill University. There were some hurdles initially. Having lived her whole life in a loving home, the young foreigner struggled with solitude. Her precarious financial situation was another source of stress. The newcomer had come to Canada with a total of $2,000 in travellers’ cheques, but her tuition at McGill cost twice that sum. “I was terrified,” she says.
Then Cody had a stroke of luck. Her brother, a graduate of Concordia, arranged a meeting between his sister and his former engineering professor, Cedric Marsh. Impressed by her marks, Marsh offered the young student a full scholarship to study at his university. “He believed in me,” says Cody.
But there were obstacles as well as opportunities in the engineering program. At first, Cody’s male colleagues excluded her from their study groups. “The notion was she’s not as good as I am,” says Cody. The frosty reception just spurred her on to try harder, and her stellar grades changed their tune. “Now they wanted to be my friend,” she says.
Cody found love as well as learning at Concordia University. Smitten with the sharp and shapely Gina Cody, MBA student Thomas read up on Iran’s history and peppered her with questions about her homeland. “He (was) showing his interest in where I come from and who I am,” says Cody. They married in 1981, and their egalitarian partnership has helped them grow. He’s my biggest supporter,” says Cody.
In 1989, Cody became the first woman in Concordia’s history to earn a PhD in engineering. After graduation, she moved to Toronto where she participated in writing the building code for the Ontario Ministry of Housing. A year later she joined a national consulting engineering firm, where she began inspecting cranes. There was no room for error. If just one nut was out of place, workers could tumble from the sky. “You (had) to be perfect,” says Cody. Especially women. In a male-dominated practice, a female’s mistake reinforces gender biases. “That is what they expect from you,” says Cody.
Some men didn’t think women belonged in engineering. As Cody clambered down an icy crane one bitter winter day, an elderly construction worker worried about her welfare. “Why don’t you learn to type?” he said. “You don’t have to do this.”
Cody didn’t take it personally – he wasn’t the first man to underestimate a woman’s strength. Cody proved him wrong. Seeking acceptance from her male colleagues, she arrived at the office at 6 am, washed the dirty dishes, brewed coffee and then tackled stacks of projects late into the night. As satisfied customers flocked back to the firm, Cody’s reputation soared. “Respect comes after delivering the product,” she says.
As Cody’s contributions mounted, she rose in the ranks of the firm, becoming its President and CEO. But she never let her position go to her head and treated everyone the same. “From the smallest person in the office to the VPs they could all come and ask me a question,” she says.
Cody also had a knack for spotting untapped potential. Once a structural engineer from Hong Kong showed up unannounced. “I just arrived a month ago….I have two kids, I need that job,” he pleaded. Cody ushered him into the boardroom and handed him an engineering problem. He solved the puzzle and was hired on the spot.
Another time, Cody welcomed a woman who was seven months pregnant and was desperate. Both her finds enriched the company. “People who want things also deliver,” she says.
But the firm’s leader could be tough as well as tender. When employees fell short of expectations, Cody let them go, as humanely as possible. She pointed out their strengths and steered them to more appropriate avenues of employment. “I would fire people, and they would be my best friends,” says Cody.
The organization prospered under Cody’s helm, earning her a slew of accolades. The Financial Post named it one of Canada’s best managed companies, while Profit Magazine placed Cody in the list of Canada’s Top Ten Women Entrepreneurs. In 2020, she was named one of Canada’s Top 25 Women of Influence.
But Cody hasn’t let these honors go to her head. “I’m just a small person, lucky to succeed,” she says.
Though she retired in 2016, Cody is busier than ever. She’s a regular on the keynote speaker circuit. At home she’s rediscovered the joy of fixing things, creating unique clothing from faded curtains. But she’s far from complacent. Having profited from the gifts of others, Cody feels duty bound to pay them forward. She’s a prolific volunteer, bolstering the standards in her field through her involvement with Professional Engineers Ontario, the Canadian Standards Association, and university boards. Cody has also raised her own two daughters – a lawyer and an engineer – to reach for the stars.
Cody’s greatest source of pride are the familiar letters gleaming on the walls of her old school. The Gina Cody Faculty of Engineering and Computer Science was renamed in her honor in 2018, following her $15 million donation to the program. The money has been earmarked to fund scholarships as well as research.
A mindset of inclusion is embedded in the whole donation, says Cody. “Regardless of their gender, ethnicity, or wealth, everyone fully belongs to engineering,” she says.
This stance against discrimination is the legacy Cody most hopes to leave. And though she shoots high, she’ll settle for modest gains. “If I change one person’s life, I’ve done my job,” she says.