Engineering Change

In January I made an unexpected trip to Edmonton, where I lived in the early ‘90s while I attended the University of Alberta.  Some things have changed, some are the same – like -30C weather that time of year – and some have adapted, like the student newspaper the Gateway. When I was a U of A student the Gateway was a once-weekly newspaper, but it now posts most of its stories online, and the print version is a monthly magazine.

An article in the January issue of the Gateway  caught my attention because it reminded me of a terrible event that happened in the Faculty of Engineering during my first year at the U of A. I described this event in a previous post, and it was reassuring to learn that some really positive things have happened since then. The Engineering faculty has more women professors than it did in the 90s – currently 12% of the faculty members are female –  and in 2017 it hired two female faculty members who first got involved in engineering through the WISEST (Women in Scholarship, Engineering, Science and Technology) initiative. WISEST was started by a U of A professor in 1982, so it’s great to see women from that program completing PhDs and getting academic jobs, as well as finding industry and government jobs. Also, the percentage of U of A engineering students that are women is now 20%, which is an increase from past decades and is also comparable to the national average.

However, and unfortunately, the article also indicates that women are still encountering challenges in pursuing engineering degrees. Last year, the U of A’s female engineering students formed a ‘Diversity in Engineering’ club. According to the article, the club is open to anyone, even if they’re not a minority or not an engineering student; the club’s purpose is to support students and provide opportunities for them to learn skills that aren’t taught in classes, such as harassment prevention and conflict resolution.

The Engineering Teaching and Learning Centre at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. This building was the main Engineering building when I attended the U of A. (credit: University of Alberta)

The club’s co-founder describes one of the reasons for starting the club: “[When] she started talking to other female engineering students, they realized they all had similar experiences; they were talked over in job interviews, they were told they were too pretty to be engineers, and they went into their co-op jobs and saw no other women”.  When she mentioned this to others, she was told, “Well, that’s the way engineering is.”

The story also quotes several female faculty members as saying they also encountered challenges, such as being told that they only got their jobs because they were women, or hearing sexist comments being made in faculty meetings. For a new faculty member or a faculty member without tenure, they say, it’s difficult to speak up against this sort of treatment because that might have negative effects on your future career.

I’m not describing all of this to suggest that the U of A Faculty of Engineering treats women worse or better than any other university engineering program. But when there’s been a national student conference on diversity in engineering every year since 1990, and when pretty much every engineering program at large Canadian universities seems to have a club like Diversity in Engineering, maybe things are not changing in engineering schools as quickly as they could. Although it’s obvious that significant progress has been made at the U of A since the terrible events in 1990, I find it really frustrating that female engineering students and faculty are still encountering discrimination.

Some of that discrimination is explicit. The story mentions a male engineering student posting on Facebook that women shouldn’t be allowed into engineering because “they’re too dumb to succeed”, and you really have to wonder what or how is going on that a student would say that in the 21st century.  But some of the discrimination is systemic and less visible, such as women not being made aware of opportunities to discover what engineering is about and what careers are available to them.

Nevertheless, it’s inspiring that student-led groups like Diversity in Engineering are being pro-active in making chnage. Students are best positioned to figure out what’s most effective to address the situations they’ve personally encountered; it may be, too, that their initiatives will have more impact because they involve students working with other students, rather than professors or administrators implementing  change from above.

And it’s clear that the U of A students have the resolve to make things happen. One of the female tudents’ response to “that’s the way engineering is” is:  “I didn’t like that phrase because it implies that we as engineers who are supposed masters of change and innovation on the technological side are incapable of change on the social side.” That insight into making change is relevant to a lot of workplaces and organizations. I hope that more people – not only engineers – will recognize that if they can make change happen in one place, they can build on that experience to make a lot of change in a lot of other places too.

One comment

  1. It’s shocking that someone would still believe (and publicly state) that women are inherently “too dumb to succeed.” But I join you in hoping that “… more people – not only engineers – will recognize that if they can make change happen in one place, they can build on that experience to make a lot of change in a lot of other places too.” Amen to that.

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