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Women in Engineering: Leading by Example to Drive Change

Women in Engineering: Leading by Example to Drive Change

Hill International is providing project management and construction management oversight services for the Southern California Regional Rail Authority / Metrolink in support of upgrades to the Moreno Valley / March Field Station in Riverside, CA.

Born in Iran, Mary Toutounchi, PE, Vice President, California Rail and Transit Practice Lead at Hill International, came to the U.S. in the 1980s to study civil engineering. After graduating with her bachelor’s degree and acquiring a professional engineering license in Arizona and California, she spent more than three decades building a career in the construction industry. In that time, Toutounchi has held senior positions as a program manager, overseeing the design and construction of a wide variety of complex infrastructure projects, including rail, highway, and facilities, in both the public and private sectors. 

“Entering the engineering field as a woman has been one of the most enriching experiences of my life,” reflected Toutounchi. “While rewarding, the journey hasn’t been without its share of challenges. Navigating through a traditionally male-dominated industry, I’ve encountered barriers, but each has been a steppingstone, pushing me to drive change and lead by example.”

At Hill, a global program, project, and construction management company, Toutounchi leads the team responsible for providing program and construction management services for Southern California Regional Rail Authority (SCRRA)/Metrolink and its Southern California Optimized Rail Expansion (SCORE), a $10 billion capital program. As part of the strategic plan, the program will deliver a new, modernized concourse and install two new run-through tracks, enhancing the ridership experience ahead of the 2028 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Los Angeles.

Breaking Barriers in the Field

“When I first started, seeing a woman in a hard hat on a construction site was rare,” said Toutounchi. “I’ve worked to change that, not just by being present but by taking lead roles on major public works, highway, and transit projects.” She continued, “Representation has the power to positively influence the work environment by breaking stereotypes and making it more welcoming to other female engineers.”

Toutounchi acknowledged some of the barriers in the field, including long hours and frequent travel to jobsites, noting it can be difficult for some women engineers to balance their careers with commitments at home. These challenges highlight the importance of fostering flexible work cultures and strong support networks at the industry level.

The Importance of Giving Back

Mary Toutounchi, PE, Vice President, California Rail and Transit Practice Lead at Hill International

Reflecting on her career, Toutounchi credited her mother as an influential figure whose support and mentorship helped guide her journey to becoming an industry leader. 

“My mother made many sacrifices to support me and made sure that I was able to follow my dream to become an engineer,” she recalled. “Her lessons inspired me to be a humble and compassionate, and as I leader, I make it my priority to help other women on their professional paths.”

During the last 20 years, Toutounchi has been involved in many organizations such as WTS International (as a mentor), CMAA’s California chapters (as membership chair), and the Railway Association of Southern California (as president) where she strives to make a positive impact on emerging professionals, especially talented young women.

Looking to the Future

Toutounchi emphasized the vital role women play in engineering and envisions a future where more women contribute to and lead the transportation sector. Diversity and inclusion in the industry mean more innovative approaches for complex and evolving transit projects, according to Toutounchi. She explained the industry can still accomplish more beyond recruiting women. 

She said, “It’s about integrating women’s experiences and perspectives into the core of our project planning and execution. With highways and rail projects, we’re ultimately connecting communities, and diversity plays a big role in the successful delivery of these programs.” 

For aspiring women engineers, Toutounchi advised, “As engineers, we often view challenges through a technical lens, but as women in the field, we bring a unique perspective that goes beyond the blueprints. I encourage women to pursue engineering and make an impact by adding value, depth, and creativity to the industry.” 

Stephanie Cristino is Senior Director of Content Development at Hill International, Inc. With a focus on corporate storytelling, her work highlights the firm’s impactful projects, people, and its collective contributions to communities around the globe.