CCE’s Lifetime Achievement Awards: Catherine Karakatsanis
By Canadian Consulting Engineer
Editor’s note: In late 2022, for the first time, Canadian Consulting Engineer launched an initiative to recognize leading professional engineers for their exceptional careers in—and legacies of contributions to—consulting engineering in the fields of construction and infrastructure. The community responded strongly, with a wide variety of nominations for these accolades. The following is one of three chosen winners.
Morrison Hershfield (MH) chief operating officer (COO) and board director Catherine Karakatsanis sensed she was destined for a career in engineering from a very early age.
“In a foreshadowing of my profession, when I was in Grade 1, I was put in a special math class where we studied algebra,” she recalls, “and through the years, I always wanted to do something meaningful. I had relatives who were in engineering and I knew the positive impact their profession made to society’s standard of living. I was always encouraged by my family and never made to feel like I shouldn’t pursue work in a male-dominated field. And I wasn’t let down at all—it’s been really rewarding!”
Karakatsanis studied civil engineering at Western University in London, Ont. One of her particularly influential mentors was Professor Alan G. Davenport, whom she calls “the father of wind engineering.”
“It was inspirational to visit buildings like the World Trade Center and Sears Tower on field trips,” she says. “That experience focused me on buildings and infrastructure.”
Davenport encouraged her to join MH. Karakatsanis was receptive to the suggestion, not least because she had studied firm co-founder Carson Morrison’s book on ethics in her fourth year.
“You had to study that book to get your engineering licence,” she explains. “It reflected the ethical culture of the firm, which was highly professional and a very welcoming place for a woman.”
“I haven’t had one day when I’ve bene bored, so it never occurred to me to work anywhere else!”
She joined MH in 1989 as a structural engineer and quickly progressed through technical and project management roles to become a director, senior director, vice-president (VP) and COO. She was the firm’s first female executive and board member.
“I’ve worked in and gained an understanding of every part of our company over the years,” she says. “I haven’t had one day when I’ve been bored, so it never occurred to me to go anywhere else!”
As a leader, she has strived to make the firm even more welcoming to and inclusive of women and minorities and to provide greater technical support to its younger engineers. She oversees MH’s inclusion and equity committee, communities of practice and climate change practice development initiative.
Along the way, she has worked with Engineers Without Borders (EWB) and led Professional Engineers Ontario (PEO), the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers (OSPE) and Engineers Canada as president. Most recently, continuing that trend to a global level, she became president-elect of la Fédération Internationale des Ingénieurs-Conseils (FIDIC). She will be the first woman to hold the position in the organization’s history when she takes the office this year.
“FIDIC has been very exciting,” she says. “It represents more than 1.4 million engineers and 40,000 firms in more than 100 countries. With its global reach, it is the ideal vehicle to facilitate collective action to advance the industry and deal with the pressing issues facing our planet.”