Networking events are a normal part of any professional careers, including engineering. They all start in a similar fashion: you put on your most professional clothes and begin to look forward to the evening. You will meet up with colleagues and meet new people within your field. You hope to strengthen existing connections, make new connections, discuss your job and the important and difficult work you have accomplished this year. When you arrive at the event, you immediately notice that no one looks like you, and immediately you feel like you stand out. You turn to find some familiar faces, your colleagues, but they’re standing in a circle, laughing together, and blocking anyone else from entering the conversation. When you finally manage to say hello, the first thing they comment on is your appearance. This is a very simple and real example of what women in engineering and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) face every day.
Thirty years ago, on December 6, 1989, 14 women were killed in the École Polytechnique de Montréal massacre. They were killed as a result of gender-based violence as the shooter did not believe women belong in engineering. Since then, December 6 marks Canada’s National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence against Women. While society has evolved over the last thirty years, violence against women is still a prevalent issue today. Just as it was thirty years ago, few women are choosing to study engineering and become engineers. Women who do choose to pursue a career in engineering can expect to be, and feel like a minority throughout their careers.
Continually, in their careers and education within engineering, women have felt singled out for their gender. The feeling like one does not belong to the engineering community as a whole is all too common. This sentiment does not come from nowhere, microaggressions are one recognizable aspect. Women face these microaggressions every day which contributes to this feeling. For example, women have been told, “you don’t really look like you fit in here,” “how do you deal with it all, you are a woman,” and that, “she only got an interview for a position because she is a woman.” Even when that particulate person does have a lot of relevant experience. While one isolated incident does not make women feel like they should consider other career paths, several incidents do. Hearing microaggressions like these almost every day, along with having few female professors or engineers that women can look up to. Leads to a feeling of isolation and that women cannot pursue a career as an engineer.
In the workplace, these sorts of microaggressions are only amplified compared to the university experience. Throughout Canada, roughly 20% of undergraduate engineering students are women, which is high compared to the workplace . It is very common that women who have been hired at a firm are the only woman in their department, and sometimes the only woman in the firm. At work, female engineers are not taken as seriously as men. They are interrupted in meetings, and people question their decisions more frequently than men. All of these microaggressions build up over time and make women feel underappreciated and unwelcome in their workplace, to the point where many do search for careers in other fields.
The reality is women continue to face difficulties in the male-dominated workplace due to their gender. This is also true for all minorities, and minorities across all STEM fields. However, the future is bright. More and more individuals and companies are recognizing the importance of diversity in the workplace. Diversity is especially important in engineering, as the design we create as engineers will be used by a diverse group of people. Having a diverse workplace helps us as engineers fully comprehend the needs of our clients and the public we are serving. By including diversity in the design process, we can help ensure the project will be designed for all potential users. A specific pinpoint for hope is within engineering. Engineers Geoscientists Manitoba has launched its 30 by 30 campaign. This initiative seeks to reach 30% of newly licensed engineers to be women by the year 2030 . This initiative creates a community and tangible goals for the industry, faculty, and students to strive for.
Everyone needs to understand the realities that women in engineering face every day in order to become better allies and work towards creating more inclusive and welcoming work environments. Though some days are tough, we as women are resilient, and overall, we would encourage all women interested in STEM to consider a career in engineering. This career will challenge you in the best way and will reward you for your hard work. Engineering is a broad field full of possibilities and opportunities, and we encourage everyone to support any woman who does choose a career in engineering.
Michèle Rochette, E.I.T., is completing a masters of science in water resources engineering with a focus on hydrologic modelling and climate change. She is the past president of the women in engineering student group, WOMEN.
Chelsea Dubiel is an undergraduate student in biosystems engineering and plays for Bisons soccer. She is the current president of WOMEN.