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Shifting Gears to Increase Women in Engineering

The push for equal gender representation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields is seeing varying degrees of success in Canada, but engineering still has the most significant disparity.

Beginning in 2016, the United Nations designated 11 February as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science to address the gender disparity in STEM fields and work towards achieving Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5: Gender Equality.

In 2020, Statistics Canada found that women represented over half of the science and science technology bachelor degrees earned that year. According to a report by the Canadian Medical Association, there will be an equal number of women and men physicians within the next decade.

However, women made up barely 22 per cent of engineering and engineering technology graduates.

According to Dr. Mary Wells, dean of engineering at the University of Waterloo and past chair of the Ontario Network of Women in Engineering, the issue lies in low enrolment numbers, not the programme’s difficulty. She said a combination of self-doubt and limited role models was preventing high school girls from taking courses to meet engineering application requirements.

“One of the biggest bottlenecks is the participation rate of women in physics”, Wells said. “The higher level of expected brilliance correlates with lower participation from women”.

“But once women enter the engineering programme, they do just as well as men, and they are just as successful”.

Engineers Canada began the 30 by 30 programme to address the gender gap and increase women’s representation in the field. As a 30 by 30 champion, Wells said the programme hopes to see women accounting for a third of newly licensed engineers by 2030. To do this, 30 by 30 holds conferences and activities to highlight role models, advocate for the importance of education and create supportive pathways for girls.

That said, progress is uneven. Wells said fields like biomedical and biosystems engineering often have more women, while mechanical and robotics engineering usually have fewer.

Sherry Zhang, a third-year engineering science student at the University of Toronto, is majoring in electrical and computer engineering (ECE). Though she said her engineering science programme began with an even gender ratio, the gap became more pronounced once students specialized—Zhang is one of eight women in ECE.

“My major is more traditional than some new ones like biomedical systems”, she said. “It’s much harder to find female role models, and I didn’t have many female seniors to talk to about other options”.

Zhang said the university hosted outreach events for women to help connect new students with seniors. “But there are fewer people to look up to in certain majors, which contributes to how many people would go into them”, she said.

Both Zhang’s parents studied engineering in China, although her mother switched to accounting after moving to Canada.

“In Asian households, it’s standard for parents to want their children to get a high-income job and become lawyers or doctors”, Zhang said. “There’s also the stereotype that some jobs are more masculine, and some are more feminine”.

“There was a lot of pressure from my mom not to go into engineering because she’s a very traditional person. Even though she studied engineering, she told me it was a very masculine field”.

Instead of her current programme, Zhang said her mother had wanted her to study medicine or life science. She also wanted Zhang to choose biomedical engineering over ECE.

Wells said she had seen considerable improvements in her 30-year career, and one of the greatest was men’s willingness to be allies.

“There’s a real openness to change”, Wells said. The spirit of the United Nations’ He for She campaign is critical to increasing representation and equality.

“It’s a bit of a struggle being a woman in STEM”, Zhang said. “But it definitely feels nice that the university is trying to help”.

Wells said universities across Canada are aware of the need for more diversity in engineering. Through collective action, schools have set up programmes to empower students to study engineering.

Canada has the Indigenous, Black, Engineering, Technology (IBET) PhD programme to support Indigenous and Black students in achieving an engineering or computer science PhD and becoming professors.

“Engineers design things to help improve the world. If you don’t have the diversity of lived experiences, you may not fully appreciate or understand what we need to help make the world a better place”, Wells said. “Their voices are so critical”.

Jessie Jung, a third-year student in Lassonde’s mineral engineering programme, said she felt supported by her university throughout her academic career, but that she felt more limitations in the workforce.

When filling out application forms, Jung said, “I’m not sure if I should say I’m a visible minority and a woman because I don’t know if that would be a positive incentive or lower my chances”.

Jung said she has heard comments from peers along the lines of ‘oh, so they’ll accept anybody’ about affirmative action and policies to help increase women in the workforce.

“The mining industry has been dominated by white men, but it doesn’t mean that men can do this job better than women”, she said.

Working at a Sudbury-based mining company since her summer co-op, Jung said she was the only woman of colour in her department—in all, she said there were three women but nearly 20 men.

Jung added that she felt shy and sometimes heard uncomfortable conversations. “I figured that could be why there are not many female engineers here”, she said. “It didn’t happen too frequently, but sometimes”.

“What if we don’t care about gender? Gender doesn’t define your capabilities”. Jung said. “It doesn’t show anything about your ability to do engineering”.

Wells agreed. Engineering can be a challenging programme and career, but women have succeeded and will continue to succeed as engineers.

“Believe in yourself, and don’t underestimate your own ability”, Wells said. “Step into your power, and just go for it”.

Edited by Ali Shahrukh Pracha


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