Enticing women into engineering

“The number of women getting into engineering in Canada has been on the decline, despite a decade of efforts to encourage more girls to think of technical careers. Even though women currently make up more than half of the undergraduate populations across Canada, the number of women enrolled in engineering programs dropped from a high of 21 per cent in 2001 to 17 per cent in 2009. The portion of licensed engineers in Canada who are women has grown from 7 per cent in 2000, but the figure still sits at only 10 per cent, according to Ottawa-based Engineers Canada.” Globe and Mail article “Why more women aren’t becoming engineers” by Jennifer Myers, published Nov. 9, 2010.

Ms. Myers’ article mentions some of the factors that limit the participation of women in engineering study programs and joining the profession, they include the lack of female mentors who could encourage more women to consider this field, the lack of awareness of what engineers do and seeing a link between engineering and helping people, the view that engineering is a masculine endeavour involving “dirty work” or “something that a tradesperson would do,” viewing the field as working with machines and computers rather than people and discomfort with a male-dominated environment.

I would argue that a couple of solutions to the problem include increasing the number of female professors in engineering and initiatives such as Go Eng Girl, an event hosted annually at Carleton for girls in Grades 7 to 10 so they and their parents can meet women currently studying engineering, learn about some of the amazing things female engineers are doing and participate in hands-on activities.

Although the points made in the Globe article reflect some aspects of the obstacles that remain, and a few potential solutions to increase the participation of women in the profession, it does not provide a complete picture of issues and strategies that could make a difference. Of course, an article is short and cannot cover all aspects of an issue. My book, The Bold and the Brave: A history of women in science and engineering, discusses these questions in detail but I think there a few major points worth highlighting.

A factor not mentioned in the article that continues to discourage women from considering careers in science, technology and engineering has existed for centuries – the stereotyping of women’s social role and their intellectual abilities in mathematics and science. Related to this point is the general lack of recognition for women’s contributions, in past eras and today. When women obtain engineering degrees, some of them find non-engineering jobs and others work in engineering, but many leave after five to eight years. Some reasons for this exodus are the lack of support to balance family responsibilities and work, the fact that young men are often promoted over the women who trained them and the organizational culture in small high-tech or consulting engineering firms, which tend to be more masculine than in large firms or government positions.

Increasing the pool of women engineers requires that policies, strategies and initiatives be invested at each level of education, starting with elementary school through to university studies. Equally important is the integration of feminine attributes and perspectives in the culture of engineering and technology, ensuring that social relevance is included in the engineering curriculum and using a teaching style that reaches a diversity of audiences and encourages self-learning. We need to redesign outreach programs for the new generation of girls and young women if we wish to reach a critical mass of women in engineering.

Some strategies are:

For girls and young women: Eliminating gender stereotypes in families, schools, and the media is fundamental. One way to de-stereotype is to show opposites such as male nurses and daycare workers; women engineers and in trades.

Although it would be wonderful to have gender balance in all engineering fields, a first step is to attract women to fields where the link to helping society and people is easier to make, such as environmental and water resource engineering, industrial and biomedical engineering.

What universities can do: First and foremost, the culture in engineering programs must change. Although overt sexist acts have largely diminished, subtle means of exclusion still exist and some women feel they do not belong. Engineering courses should include some aspects of societal relevance so that students can see a more humanistic side to engineering. Gender sensitivity training should be provided to administrators, professors and students, including the use of inclusive language and how to avoid sexism, racism, homophobia, harassment and discrimination.

Engineering needs women more than women need engineering; women currently flock in great numbers to health-related careers, which are in great demand with the aging population everywhere. So we must, in engineering, technology and science, find the way to achieve more gender balance and a culture where women no longer have to be bold and brave to choose these careers.

Monique Frize is a Distinguished Professor at Carleton University. The Ontario Society of Professional Engineers (OSPE) and Professional Engineers Ontario (PEO) recently awarded her its prestigious Gold Medal.

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