Engineering needs more women

I have a professor who is quite different from my others. No, it’s not the hair or the shoes or the teaching method. She is a woman. And as an engineering student, she is my first full-semester female professor this year.

The University of Calgary’s female enrolment in engineering is about 24 per cent. The national average is 17 per cent. Though efforts by the Schulich School of Engineering to increase these numbers are underway, such as the conversion of male bathrooms into female ones, more drastic measures need to be taken. The root causes of the lack of women in engineering — social stereotypes and lack of information — needs to be targeted.

A common myth is that women are less skilled at math and thus less capable of succeeding in engineering. In the past, women performed worse on standardized math tests, but this was because women took fewer advanced math courses. Nowadays, women and men perform equally well in math on average, thus making females no less intellectually capable of engineering. Much of the reason why so many women feel their math capabilities are not up to par with engineering standards is not because they achieve lower marks, but because they believe they will not be able to compete with men who are assumed to have higher capabilities in this subject.

Engineering is often perceived as a field with little creativity and time for socialization. But engineering assignments and labs often require a significant amount of group work. Engineering is also a great place for creative individuals. In industry, collaboration and innovativeness are a crucial part of success as engineers are often hired as part of design teams which use creative and teamwork skills, along with their engineering knowledge, to produce modern marvels of technology.

Engineering is typically seen as a discipline people go into to make money. Although no humanitarian value is assigned to the faculty, this should not be so. Organizations such as Engineers Without Borders do use their engineering profession in a humanitarian way. Those interested can also choose to specialize in areas such as Biomedical Engineering or Environmental Engineering that have more of a focus on humanitarianism and environmentalism respectively. Women, of course, find these areas interesting too, so their numbers should reflect that.

Another factor that deters, or rather does not encourage women, is the lack of female role models in the field. Because of the long standing domination of men in engineering, young women entering the field do not get to look up to famous women like Marie Curie for the physicists or Margaret Mead for anthropologists, though role models have begun to emerge. One such example is U of C’s president Dr. Elizabeth Cannon, former dean of the Schulich School of Engineering. More, though, are needed.

True, the U of C’s engineering program is well ahead of the national average with respect to the percentage of women in their program. This may in part be attributed to a Women in Engineering Day, a program run by the Schulich School of Engineering that invites grade 10 and 11 girls for a day of engineering exposure. Not only do these girls get to explore career opportunities, but also understand the social relevance of engineering. Successful female engineers from industry are also invited to act as role models to the girls and prove that women can in fact be engineers, and good ones at that. This opens doors for bright young minds into the fascinating — female — world of engineering.

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