How can we make engineering a welcoming field for all?

by Robert Greenwald

I remember wondering why there were so few women in our engineering class at the University of Waterloo (I graduated in 1991 in Mechanical Engineering).  Back then too, there were programs in place to encourage women to enter engineering and initiatives to try to increase the popularity of this career choice for high school students. We were hovering between 15 and 20% in most faculties although some areas like Civil and Chemical had a higher ratio while Electrical and Computer had much less. Unfortunately, as my youngest daughter is finding out through recent visits to engineering schools in Canada, the ratio has not improved very much today. While some schools have much better ratios, the majority of schools are still heavily underrepresented by women. This is at a time where law schools and medical schools have reached gender parity in many universities in Canada.

waterloo-campus.jpg

Is it ok that women are underrepresented in this field? I think not. One of the women at Prism Engineering said it best so I won’t try to paraphrase: “it is important because the best engineering solutions, and our contribution to society as Engineers, are only going to come from a diversity of ideas and opinion, and one that includes the voices of women.”

So why are women still underrepresented in our industry? Is it due to a lack of role models? A lack of familiarity with what engineers do? Or a lack of interest? It appears to me, anecdotally, that it may start earlier than that. In elementary schools, the choice of play options often get split on gender lines. In high school, young girls as early as grade 8 are deciding what courses to take and have to make decisions about entering a STEM “stream”. Those that do choose STEM courses often shy away from Physics classes since it is considered as a “hard” course and one where a low grade may reduce their chances of getting into the university of their choice.  In my daughters’ case, only 12% of the girls in her grade 12 class are taking a Physics course. Assuming that Grade 12 Physics is an indicator of students entering engineering, the ratio would not be any better than my days in university.

I was asked to speak at a career fair earlier this year for Grade 12 students considering their post-secondary options.  The question I was asked was “What you believe it is like for a young woman in this industry.” As a 50-year-old white male, there was NO WAY I was going to attempt to answer how a young woman would feel! My solution: I asked several women at Prism for their thoughts.  Some of what I heard was encouraging:  "Personally I think being a woman in this industry is empowering. I think whether you’re a woman or man, the industry still expects you to prove yourself. As a woman, proving myself to the industry and feeling like I can still be a mom, a friend and a wife has been very empowering." 

But some comments also showed me that we have a lot of work to do: "I would say that it is not easy, but it is important. It can feel lonely and isolating as the industry is still dominated by men. Your teachers will be majority men, and you bosses will be too. There might be some resources available to you, clubs, associations, colleagues etc. but there also might not be."

Engineers and Geoscientists of BC (EGBC), the professional accreditation organization in BC that all Professional Engineers in BC must belong to, is advocating for gender diversity. In the month of March, in conjunction with National Engineering month, they organized a community and family event designed to increase the appreciation of engineering. Young participants starting from Grade 1 to 6 participated in Science Games to learn about tackling hand-on science activities in a fun way. They are also working to raise the profile of women in engineering and opportunities available to girls in conjunction with International Women in Engineering Day on June 23, 2019. I believe they are on the right track.

What are we doing about it at Prism Engineering?  How do we make women staff feel less lonely, less isolated?  We may not have it figured out but are taking some small steps along this journey.

We have also prepared a video to use to show prospective employees, both women and men, about what women at Prism do and how we nurture, what is referred to in the video by one of our staff, a “safe” workplace.  Please check out this 45 second snapshot into the life of woman engineers at Prism.

My daughter will have to choose whether engineering is for her or whether she will choose other passions to follow. I just hope that other women feel welcome in our profession and that all women that work at Prism feel an equal, secured and caring place to work. There is more to do, please share your thoughts with me.  


Robert Greenwald, Principal & President | Email