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
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.
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
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
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.