The engineering mystery: Where are the women?

Women’s Day is traditionally a shout out to the successes and challenges facing females around the world. It’s also a reminder for professionals, including engineers, of the need to fast-track efforts to entice women into industries grasping for diversity.
Over the past decade, a greater push by grassroots groups, associations and governments has introduced a higher number of young women into the engineering industry, but the reality is that stereotypes remain intact and lack of confidence early on in a girl’s life can alter a career trajectory, even when she is capable in STEM (science, math, engineering and technology).
There is nothing inherent in the field of engineering that would dictate it to be dominated by males, yet females remain underrepresented and underpaid. Bruce Matthews, chief executive of Consulting Engineers of Ontario, said the statistics are a clarion call for more mobilization.
“Women make up about 48 per cent of our overall work force, and out of about 16,000 engineers in the country, only 13 per cent are women,” he said. “There are efforts to bring that up to 30 per cent by 2030, but if you do the math and go backwards – four years of university, then four years of experience to gain professional status – that means girls who are ideal candidates are about to enter Grade 9. We need to take a more active approach to entice them into STEM now.”
A 2017 study by Microsoft and KRC Research revealed why girls’ interest in STEM drops off: difficulty understanding what an engineer actually does, a lack of clubs, cultural and professional role models, hands-on experience and not enough knowledge of how to even launch a STEM career. They also want assurance that their job will make a difference in the world. The window of opportunity for getting girls into engineering is also very narrow, as the risk of them losing interest in STEM studies starts in junior high and doesn’t end until Year 2 of postsecondary education.
Girls are also highly reliant on parents and teachers to champion their efforts, but if neither influencer can emotionally or academically relate to engineering as a viable profession, their studies will pivot to safer, more acceptable careers.
Mr. Matthews said the Canadian engineering industry is facing a perspective gap – one that can be filled by skills that women bring to projects. Predispositions, however, can cloud judgment unwittingly.
“I think a lot of men don’t realize their own bias to hiring or working with women. There’s almost a subconscious side, a mix of experience, upbringing, but not specifically anti-female. It’s going to take a C-Suite change to help make things happen.”
Dimitra Katsuris, a geomatics and mechanical engineer in Alberta’s oil patch for more than 25 years, said the push to entice women into the profession is working slowly but surely. However, there are occasional moments when behaviours creep backward.
“Twenty years ago, the petroleum shows I attended were professional and inviting to women,” she said. “Within the last two [economic] downturns, it seems like some companies are reverting back to the old boys’ club – hiring ‘pinup’ girls in tight t-shirts to attract attention to their booths. I thought we were past that.”
She said the industry has seen good economic upswings, which create a more liberal and diverse hiring environment – but also downturns, which for a select few spark machismo and protectionism. “There are a lot of engineers looking for work right now and many of them have impressive credentials – so the field is highly competitive,” Ms. Katsuris said. “It’s easier to call up a buddy you know because he’s available and familiar.”
Growing up in Innisfail, Alta., Heidi Cossey, 27, a geoenvironmental engineer and PhD student at University of Alberta, never saw the connection between her love of math and science and the engineering profession until she graduated high school.
“I got high marks, like 99 and 100 in math and science,” she said. “Nobody ever mentioned what I should take in university at the time. I just did well and they left it at that. All I knew is that I wanted to help people. I didn’t know you could actually do that in engineering.”
Ms. Cossey says that as she advanced in her career, she received odd reactions and questions from co-workers and friends as to why a vibrant, young woman would choose such a profession.
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Her parents, both licensed professionals, supported her decision to pursue her newfound calling, but had visions of her getting a good job after her bachelor’s degree and following the traditional route of getting married and having babies. They grew concerned when she chose to complete her master’s degree.
“They asked me why I would get my master’s when I wanted to have kids,” she said with a laugh. “They’d be horrified now that they would have said that at the time, but it was just the thing to do.”
As Ms. Cossey advanced in her career and studies, she received odd reactions and questions from co-workers and friends as to why a vibrant, young woman would choose such a profession, or if she could even handle the job.
“I worked with two older men who asked me if I could drive a truck or knew what an aquifer was,” she said. “One was not supportive at all and wouldn’t really work with me, which was frustrating. And I can’t tell you how many people have told me I should be a hairdresser instead of an engineer, or that it wasn’t fair that I should be so smart.”
Coaxing males to hire or work alongside women engineers can be a delicate interplay, and one that isn’t really talked about in the open, according to Carolyn Levy, president of Randstad Technologies at employment agency Randstad Canada. She says the problem isn’t in the fact that men feel women can’t do the job. It’s more the fear of missteps navigating the gender mix.
“Some male executives think they have to lower the bar when hiring female engineers,” she said. “When we investigate why they feel this way, they respond with, ‘I didn’t mean to say that!’ They suggest maybe they should make the job qualifications less or change what the role really is. I tell them leave the position the same and demonstrate movement in your organization.”
The #MeToo movement has also affected the decisions of male employers and mentors to get involved in nurturing women into the profession.
"It’s important to recognize this is about organizations, not just men,” Ms. Levy added. “The movement put light on what needs to change to create a safe and inclusive environment. I think it’s less about, ‘We won’t get it right so don’t bother,’ and more about the lack of education around how to improve diversity and foster inclusion.”
While there is no magic bullet that will guarantee parity or boost participation by girls and women, Maike Luiken, president of IEEE Canada (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), said there are ways to pique greater interest.
“Schools need to ensure that teachers are well trained and truly engaged in their topic areas, and they should bring more hands-on curriculum, such as 3-D printing. We also need governments at all levels to move the puck in support of gender parity through policy, regulation, legislation and fiscal measures. Pay equity is essential.”
She also suggested that more role models promote the possibilities through projects, camps, mentoring, and even television shows, which have proven to be a strong cultural influencer. The goal is to change the perception – that engineering and science are cool, not nerdy.
“We have many successful women in Canada and the world in the field of engineering. Let’s talk about their success. My advice to girls is to dream strong and dream big. Stand up for yourself and find friends who have similar aspirations and work hard together,” Ms. Luiken said.
Ms. Cossey agrees, and intends to continue cultivating confidence in girls. She’s also set on quietly influencing her male counterparts to focus on what female engineers can offer, rather than hanging on to antiquated gender differences. She is keenly aware that this will take time and patience.
“I understand that a male engineer will probably be given more respect and credibility on the job,” she said. “Unfortunately, I think women will still have to prove themselves for a while yet. Maybe in 10 years or so, things will change. The younger generation seems to be more accepting, at least I hope so. It’s important that we have male champions.”