Article: Number of women pursuing engineering on the rise

Engineer Ring

Originally published by the Incubator, TalentEgg Inc.
September 21, 2010

Sara Wyss is nearly finished her masters degree in Building Engineering at Concordia University, but becoming an engineer would likely not have happened if not for the personal encouragement she received from her dad, an engineering professor.

Wyss says she kept her options open by studying language as well as engineering, but soon couldn’t imagine having chosen another field. “Turns out I loved engineering and I haven’t looked back since.”

Engineering has often been criticized for maintaining a “boys club” atmosphere through the industry’s sharp gender imbalance in both students and working engineers.

Queen’s University has reported that the entering class has seen a surge in female representation over the last three years, from 23% in 2008, to 28.1% for the current academic year.

According to Engineers Canada, the number of women entering engineering peaked at 20.6% in 2001, after a decade of steadily rising numbers. The proportional representation of female undergraduates has since declined and has hovered at about 17% for the past five years.

But recent trends in the undergraduate enrollment of some Canadian universities, like the University of Toronto, have raised hopes that after a decade of declining proportional representation, the numbers of women pursing engineering are again on the rise.

The rise may be modest, but it has many hoping that it is indicative of a positive trend for women in engineering.  Brenda McCabe, current chair of the Civil Engineering department at the University of Toronto, credits the development to the broad strategic focus in recent years encouraging women to pursue science and technology.

Engineering careers: A range of opportunities

McCabe suggests that the recent rise in female undergraduate enrollment may also be due to the promotion of the diversity of career paths available in engineering.

“Engineering is not about building a new building or a water treatment plant,” she says, “it’s about impacting society and serving the community.”
This sentiment is echoed by Elizabeth Maryan, who has built her engineering career at Ontario Power Generation since 1988. Maryan says there is a lack of knowledge about what engineering actually is and advocates for greater promotion of achievements in science and technology.

An emphasis on career prospects is reflected in the motivations of some recent graduates. Hilary Fleming, who holds a degree in Chemical Engineering and a masters of Engineering Design from McMaster University, was drawn to engineering for the opportunity to work on real-world applications. “I love to create,” she says, “and engineering is definitely a place where you can do that.”

Among the diverse range of engineering concentrations, women do tend to be well-represented in environmental (36.8%), chemical (35.5%), biosystems (34.5%) and geological (33.1%) streams, while the lowest proportion of women are found in electrical (12%), software (10.1%), mechanical (10.1%), and computer engineering (9.8%).

But engineers need not be tied strictly to their initial field of study. After a summer job in geotechnical engineering that Wyss says she found too slow-paced, she landed a three-month internship working with a small company in Switzerland.

There she was able to get a broad overview of a variety of roles ranging from site visits, to meetings, to design and analysis, to contract bidding and technical drawing. “I enjoyed getting out of the office and going on site and dealing with contractors,” she says. “I don’t like sitting in front of a computer all day. I much prefer to deal with people and to get right in the thick of things and get dirty.”

Similarly, Katelyn Smith, a recent Materials Engineering graduate, is now working as a Civil Engineer for Aecon Construction Group. She says she found her passion for civil engineering with the “pride that comes with seeing a design go from paper to reality and knowing that you helped to make it happen.”

Engineering culture: A man’s world?

When it comes to the workplace culture of engineering, Smith says  it can be a challenge to be a woman in a male dominated industry. However, she says, “each experience that I have encountered has enabled me to strengthen my skills and further advance towards my career goals.”

As well, Smith says that the sense of teamwork and collaboration that she has experienced in her career as an engineer make her look forward to coming to work.

Fleming also says that the culture of engineering is more accepting than some may think. “There is a lot of pride in being an engineering student and this can be taken by other students as arrogance, but really everyone is just trying to have a good time.”

Problem-solving is a key component of any engineering career, says McCabe, and women therefore bring a valuable perspective to the profession for the diversity of ways in which different people approach problems.

There are many support and outreach programs targeted towards women that recognize the importance of this contribution.

For example, at Ontario Power Generation, Maryan participated in the emPOWERed Women program, a leadership development and mentoring program designed to help women at Ontario Power Generation with networking, career development and mentoring skills. “It empowers women to go for  jobs of [increased] responsibility with skill, conviction, and style,” she says.

Being involved in mentoring has been important to Maryan as she believes there are not enough female role models in science and technology for young women currently considering their career options.

Still, her outlook is positive: “Women shall break the stereotype that technical professions are for men.”