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Closing the engineering gender gap: why we need to give more support to young girls pursuing science

Blog post written by: Kathy Sheng

“Universities, government funders and engineering industry groups agree the path to engineering needs to be smoother for bright young women”, Diane Peters writes in her article for University Affairs magazine.

According to Engineers Canada, out of all engineering undergraduate students, women only make up 22 percent, and just 13 percent of licensed engineers in the country are women.

Engineers Canada has a “30 by 30” goal – having women represent 30 percent of newly licensed engineers by 2030. Achieving this not only means motivating girls to pursue engineering while in high school, but society’s view of who belongs in the profession.

“In the 17th and 18th centuries, the practice of science was very much linked to gender roles,” says Tanja Tajmel, an associate professor with the Centre for Engineering in Society at Concordia University.

In Western cultures, a "proper education" was viewed as one that supported domestic and social activities but disregarded more academic pursuits [1]. “Now we are 200, 300 years later, and we still feel this heritage,” Tajmel says. Even with modern feminism, some of these old patterns still show up in academia and in the workplace. “This gender gap is very much a North American or Western problem,” Dr. Tajmel says. “In many countries with emerging economies, girls embrace tech,” Peters writes as she recounts an experience from an interviewee who grew up in India.

“Physics is the least popular science course for girls, and yet it is a required course to apply to engineering,” says Mary Wells, dean of the college of engineering and physical sciences at the University of Guelph.

A reason for girls being turned off by engineering programs may be the fact that they tend to be surrounded by guys, including male instructors. “Statistics Canada numbers dating back to 2010-11 show just 12 percent of engineering professors in Canada were women, and only a slim seven percent were full professors,” Peters writes.

Female undergraduate enrollment in Canadian engineering programs:

Loss of students in Ontario schools from Grade 10 Academic Science to Grade 12 Physics:


“Study after study shows that one of the key reasons women leave engineering is what they call a chilly workplace,” says Dr. Kim Jones, associate professor in the department of chemical engineering at McMaster. It was suggested that 40 percent of women who graduate engineering end up leaving the profession or never end up entering in the first place.

According to a 2017 survey by the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers,

· one in two women feel disrespected on the job,

· one in three get paid less than men, and

· one in four experience discrimination, harassment or bullying.

The low ratios of women in these workplaces make it difficult for them to take a stand, intimidation or feeling unsupported is not an uncommon experience.

None of these statistics seem very hopeful but there’s lots of schools and companies that recruit new graduates can do to help.

One thing engineering programs are doing is covering ethics, inclusion and diversity modules in project and professional development-based courses.

Peters states, “At McMaster, Dr. Jones is about to launch a course on inclusion in the workplace, and professors there now organize lab groups to either include two or more women, or none at all, and make sure roles get rotated – no more girls getting stuck taking notes all year” - a relatable experience one of the interviewees recalled from her undergrad experience.

Universities could also work on having more female faculty members and investing more in programs for elementary/high school students to show them that engineering is an excellent option for girls and guys alike. Student-led groups at campuses and summer camp programs like several Queen’s student-run initiatives such as ScienceQuest and Queen’s WiSE’s Girl Guides Day. These give younger students an empowering experience that will hopefully inspire their future career choices.

Peters writes about other great initiatives various Canadian organizations are championing to deal with gender parity in the industry: “In the end, the measure of all this effort will be whether more companies hire and retain more women engineers."

Groups such as the Ontario Society for Professional Engineers are trying: it’s launched an app called DiversifySTEM that offers mini-lessons on promoting gender diversity and changing culture. Engineers Canada has been working with the Association of Consulting Engineering Companies to champion diversity in its members' companies.”

Peters concludes, “A diverse profession that includes the brightest minds will do better.“

For the field of engineering to continue to grow and innovate at exponential rates, we need to push for more diversity and change our biases of who “belongs” in STEM fields.


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