National Engineering Month: Let’s celebrate our women engineers

Today’s engineering profession needs a diverse set of skilled people to solve problems and advance society in many areas, from infrastructure and health to security and the environment.

The importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) to any nation’s economy cannot be overstated. A recent report by the Expert Panel on STEM Skills for the Future concluded that, in light of an unpredictable future, STEM literacy is the best response to building a skilled society that can be resilient.

And Engineers Canada says diversity is the key to a sustainable engineering profession.

History is filled with women who have contributed to the engineering profession.

Take, for instance, Helena Augusta Blanchard, a great inventor in the Industrial era who gave us the zigzag sewing machine, a surgical needle and other products.

Emily Warren Roebling took on the role of chief engineer to build the Brooklyn Bridge when her husband suddenly became ill and could not perform his duties.

Elsie MacGill was the first woman aircraft designer in the world and the first woman to receive an electrical engineering degree in Canada.

Roberta Bondar was the first female Canadian astronaut and is using her passion for photography to help save the planet.

Ursula Franklin, a distinguished researcher in the field of metallurgy, is a humanitarian and feminist voice in science.

The accomplishments of these pioneers are commendable and there are many more women doing great work in the engineering field. The recent #ILookLikeAnEngineer hashtag highlights some of these everyday female engineers who are playing an instrumental role.

Despite these stories, there remains a discrepancy in the number of women engineers. Research confirms that men and women are equally competent in math and solving complex problems at early ages. But discrepancies begin to surface at the high school level, where females opt out of advanced math and science courses essential to engineering. In 2014, women represented 47.3 per cent of the total Canadian labour force, but less than 12 per cent of practising licenced engineers.

If the current level of female participation in engineering persists, Canada will be at a disadvantage in its efforts to compete on the world stage. In a fast-changing economy, we need equal numbers of both male and female innovators to provide robust solutions that will take us to the next level.

Imagine how different our world would be today if the women pioneers had not joined the engineering profession.

As organizations and governments commit to increasing the participation of women and other visible minorities in STEM, let’s celebrate the first female engineering pioneers who, despite the difficulties, broke down barriers to demonstrate the value of women to the profession.

Let’s celebrate Carleton’s efforts – through a series of initiatives – to encourage girls to consider STEM subjects, especially engineering, when they move on to university. Virtual Ventures in the Faculty of Engineering and Design organizes camps and school outreach events throughout the year, for instance.

Let’s applaud the female engineers who have followed and are contributing their share to advance society.

And let’s cheer on the future female engineers who will rise to the call to keep Canada competitive on the world stage.

And let’s not forget to acknowledge the important role of influencers: parents, family members, role models, friends, teachers, coaches, media and fellow male engineering classmates, colleagues and bosses. You have the power to encourage, support and nurture these women as they rise to the challenge to make our nation great.

Mawuena Torkornoo is the director of Virtual Ventures, a not-for-profit organization run under Carleton’s Faculty of Engineering and Design that offers technology and engineering programs for youth.

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