Canadian Consulting Engineer

Panel explores why change is so slow on female engineers

The subject of Barbie dolls came up several times at the "Women in Engineering" session held on Friday, May 7 ...

May 17, 2010   Canadian Consulting Engineer

The subject of Barbie dolls came up several times at the “Women in Engineering” session held on Friday, May 7 as part of the 2010 Public Policy Conference in downtown Toronto.
The conference was held by the Ontario Centre for Engineering and Public Policy, a new arm of Professional Engineers Ontario. The panelists were Professor Valerie Davidson, P.Eng. of the University of Guelph, Professor Monique Frize, P.Eng. of the University of Ottawa, and Wendy Cukier of Ryerson University. The chair was Nancy Hill, P.Eng. of Hill & Shumacher.
Both Frize and Davidson have long been involved in the cause for promoting more females to enter the profession. Frize was the first NSERC Chair for Women in Science and Engineering, and Davidson is the current chair for Ontario.
Last year, Dr. Frize published The Bold and the Brave: A History of Women in Science (University of Ottawa Press), which not only includes her personal 40-year history in the profession  (she was the only female among 1,000 men at her iron ring ceremony), but also “introduces the reader to key concepts and debates that contextualize the obstacles women have faced and continue to face in the fields of science and engineering.”
As the Toronto panelists pointed out, women are still greatly outnumbered by men in the profession, and statistics show female members are even declining.
Twenty years ago, Frize chaired the committee that wrote the landmark report “More Than Just Numbers,” which outlined the barriers facing women from entering the engineering profession. Click here.
Both Davidson and Frize said we still have a long way to go to realize many of the 29 recommendations in that 1992 report. There have been some good signs, however, they pointed out. For example, Professional Engineers Ontario is installing its fifth female president this year, and several other provinces have or have had female presidents (APEGGA’s president-elect Kim Farwell, P.Eng. was in the audience).
Also there have been many strong initiatives, such as engineering summer camps for girls, and the Go ENG Girl events, now in their fifth year in Ontario, where female students in grade 7 to 10 plus one of their parents spend a Saturday learning about engineering careers (the next Go ENG Girl is scheduled for Saturday, October 17). Davidson said that this initiative alone has reached 4,000 girls.
Still, the panelists had to ask, why is the pace of change so slow? Why is it that only one-third of girls show any interest in becoming scientists or engineers? Various theories were put forward by the panelists and members of the audience (many of whom were men), including: the importance of role models, and the importance of social and cultural influences.
Wendy Cuiker, who is associate dean of the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University, pointed out that girls are far less likely than boys to know what an engineer is (she grew up thinking an engineer was the “guy at the back of train”). She suggested that in contrast television shows like “CSI” have done a lot to familiarize girls with forensics and encourage them to consider such careers.
Cuiker advocates enacting actual policies to institute diversity in different organizations. She pointed out that in the U.S., business management schools are required to report their diversity statistics and suggested that this seems to have made a real difference,
So how did Barbie come into the discussion? Apparently Mattel has introduced “Computer Engineer Barbie,” complete with glasses, a smart phone, Bluetooth and pink laptop. Feelings were mixed among the panelists and the younger females in the audience about whether the technology-bedecked Barbie was a good thing. Monique Frize thought it was an improvement from decades ago when Barbie said “math is hard.” Davidson said there was something to say in favour of Computer Barbie since so many girls play with the dolls. However, a young woman in the audience said she was not in favour of the latest incarnation of Barbie, and believes it just perpetuates the problem.

 


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