ASEE Prism Magazine - May/June 2003
The Graduate
Engineers, Start Your Engines
Magnetic Fields
All The President's Friends
ASEE 2003 Annual Conference - HItting a High Note in Nashville
ASEE Today
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Last Word
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Magnetic Fields

- By Pierre Home-Douglas    

Attracting more women to engineering is just as problematic for Canada as it is for this country, but our northern neighbors have managed to boost their numbers by designing new programs in areas like microelectronics.

When Monique Frize started studying engineering at Canada's Ottawa University in 1963, she didn't find a lot of female soul mates in her class. In fact, she didn't find any females at all. Frize was the first female engineering student the university had ever admitted. "The dean called my father and said, ‘Talk some sense into your daughter,' "Frize recalls. "He said, ‘I can't. She'll do what she decides to do.'"

Four decades later, Frize is doing her part to make sure that the number of women in engineering continues to rise across Canada. In 1989 she was appointed the first NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada) Women in Engineering Chair. Her first day on the job was the same day as the funeral for the 14 students murdered at Montreal's École Polytechnique, 13 of whom were final-year mechanical engineering students. "I was in the media a lot that day, and I was very angry and full of sorrow for what had happened," Frize recalls. "I remember saying, ‘A thousand women for everyone who died.' And now we have had more than 15,000 women engineers who have graduated since then."

In 2001, women made up 20.3 percent of the total number of engineering undergraduates in Canada, up from 3.6 percent in 1975 and 10.8 percent in 1985. (The percentage of women undergraduates in the U.S. is almost the same as Canada's—just over 20 percent). Like universities in countries such as the U.S. and Britain, Canadian schools are exploring different ways to boost those numbers. As Elizabeth Cannon, a former chair of Women in Engineering points out, "What's needed is a multipronged approach. There is no one silver bullet that is going to make all the difference."

One of those prongs has been the NSERC Chairs. In 1997 the program expanded to provide five regional chairs: one each in Atlantic Canada, Quebec, Ontario, the Prairie Provinces (Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta), and British Columbia (including the Northwest Territories). Each chair is co-sponsored by a major corporation such as IBM, Petro-Canada, and Alcan. As Cannon points out, the impact of the five chairs has been more than the sum of its parts. "It has given us a voice from coast to coast in the country, helping us share strategies and work at issues on a national and an international level." The professors meet regularly, share a newsletter, and provide links to each other's Web sites and many other related programs. In addition, each chair helps develop networks that reach groups such as school boards, teachers, guidance counselors, parents' groups, students, employers, and engineering deans.

Most Canadian universities have initiated various outreach programs to attract more women to the study of engineering. These often start at an early age. Summer camps and workshops are also proving to be popular ways to attract young female students to the opportunities in engineering. Ryerson University in Toronto, for example, offers Discover Engineering, a weeklong summer camp for high school girls that includes hands-on activities in a number of engineering disciplines. In the late 1990s, the school also expanded the program to include a one-day career conference to target senior high school girls. The university even works with Girl Guides to help elementary school age girls earn an engineer badge.

Mentoring programs have also proved popular. One of the most innovative plans has been created at the University of Calgary in Alberta. Called SCIberMENTOR, the program is an e-mail mentoring initiative offered in conjunction with the University of Alberta in Edmonton. It matches girls between the age of 11 and 18 in Alberta with women studying science or engineering or practicing as scientists or engineers, taking into account such factors as interests and hobbies. "The program allows us to get out to the rural areas," says Elizabeth Cannon. "We have a reach far beyond our own backyard." The program began in 2001 and already has close to 400 girls who have signed up. "The women who are mentoring are excited about it and so are the girls. It's a really neat program."

As many women involved in recruiting more female students to engineering have discovered, one of the problems is getting high school girls to understand what engineering is all about. "When we asked students to define what they think an engineer might do, less than a third of class were able to give us a decent answer," says Lisa Anderson, a mechanical engineer and the coordinator for Women in Engineering at Ryerson. But what is perhaps more revealing is the difference between the answers given by boys versus girls. "When we ask them point blank would they consider it as a career, guys will say yes—even though they don't know exactly what it is," Anderson explains. "Girls, on the other hand, will say they'll do it only if they clearly know what it is. It all comes back to the perception that engineering is a good career decision for guys."

Part of the problem for both boys and girls, according to Elizabeth Cannon, is that the word "engineering" simply isn't used in the vocabulary of teachers in junior high. "They talk about science and the elements of engineering such as physics and math, but putting it all together into a career of engineering is still somewhat foreign to many of them." She adds that the universities themselves have to do a better job at making students understand that engineering certainly is a job that contributes to the world around them. "We have to be vigilant in terms of continuing to educate them about the opportunities of engineering in our undergraduate program. When they come through our front door we have to expose them through - out our curriculum to the relevancy of engineer-ing and not just talk about equations."

Many educators admit that women are still heavily drawn to "helping" or "caring" professions, areas where they can actually see a direct consequence of what they do. As civil engineer Márta Ecsedi puts it, "When women are choosing a field of study they prefer to visualize what they are actually going to be doing at the university. If you look at high school chemistry you can see products and applications of what you are doing." Small surprise then that the University of Toronto, for example—where Ecsedi serves as adviser on women's issues to the dean of the faculty of applied sciences and engineering—has a chemical engineering program with 48 percent women students. And at the University of Guelph, which offers engineering programs in biological, environmental, water resource, and engineering systems and computing, the entire engineering department is 31 percent women.


Redefining the Word

But what about fields such as mechanical and electrical engineering, traditional bastions of male-dominated engineering programs? The University of Sherbrooke, situated 100 miles east of Montreal, may have discovered one answer to the chronic shortage of women students in these fields by redefining what the word engineering means. Working in conjunction with McGill University and Montreal's École Polytechnique, the University of Sherbrooke has helped design a new degree in microelectronics engineering. According to the school's dean of engineering, Richard Marceau, the goal is to merge life sciences and environmental issues—traditionally stronger draws for female students—with electrical and mechanical engineering. Twelve of the first 90 credits for the course will target life science issues, including an obligatory anatomy course like the ones medical students take. "It not just a question of attracting more women," says Marceau. "It's a question of looking at trends. Our vision of microelectronics 10 years from now and beyond is that microprocessors won't be talking to other microprocessors over the Internet; they'll be talking to living cells, living tissue, and living organisms." According to Marceau, the program is awaiting final approval from Quebec's Ministry of Education. He hopes that the first students will enter the program in September 2004.

Marceau adds, "University students are athletes—athletes of the mind. And our league is the world. When you are an athlete, are you aiming for the bottom of the league or the top? There are some very good potential engineers out there who are women. But we need to attract them and show them why it's in their interest to go into the field. We have to address their concerns."

While increasing the number of females getting undergraduate and graduate degrees in engineering is proving to be a challenge, raising the levels of female faculty has proven a more elusive goal. One of the problems, according to John Gruzleski, dean of engineering at Montreal's McGill University, is that academic life is different than life in industry, which makes it difficult for women to juggle the demands of professorship and having a family. "It's very hard to take a leave of absence. Research, for example, is ongoing. So is the supervising of graduate students and applying for grants. You can't turn it on and off like a tap."

Of course, to consider a career in academia, more women need to enroll in graduate school. Here, too, there have been increases: In 2001, 24 percent of the students in master's programs were women. The number of Ph.D. students stands at 17 percent. As Márta Ecsedi puts it, "It's important to keep women in the pipeline from undergraduate to graduate level." She has helped organize workshops that invite women undergraduates to listen to women graduate students in order to learn vital skills for being successful in graduate school—everything from the best way to apply to grad school to how to go about securing research grants.

Progress is being made and in some schools the timing may be fortuitous. At the University of Toronto, for example, retirement of senior members of the department will create a large number of openings over the next five years. This is where Márta Ecsedi is focusing her attentions. "If we are lucky enough to get women hired in 25 percent of the openings, that would bring us up into the 15 percent range." Currently, the number is 8 percent.

She adds, "If I didn't foresee that we had a lot of openings coming up over the next five years, there would have been no point in targeting the area of recruitment of female faculty. This is an opportunity to make a real difference."


Pierre Home-Douglas is a freelance writer based in Montreal.
He can be reached at