Pursuit: Why we don’t see many women in engineering (and what you can do about it)

This week I’ll be looking further in to the numbers that I looked in to last week. When I speak with some of my friends completing engineering degrees there are some statements that I can (confidently) argue I’ve heard most of them say:

  • “Yeah, nearly half the class failed the midterm”
  • “I was in Trottier till 4AM!”
  • “Yeah I like my classes, but there are no girls!”

To most of us, it is not news to hear that engineering classes are lacking in the XX chromosome.

What are the numbers?

In the 2006-2007 Canadian school year, around 14% of the engineering grads were women.

What’s the deal?

There are many reasons that can explain the “gender-gap” in engineering; at a young age girls are encouraged to write more, boys are encouraged to excel in math etc.  A recent small-scale survey commissioned in Calgary suggests that people believe that gender stereotypes and social influences hinder women from pursing a degree in engineering. The reasons are varied, there is no absolute answer as to why this is the case. But the numbers speak.

“Whatever! It doesn’t matter, we just need good engineers it doesn’t matter if that’s a man or a women!”

I agree. The field of engineering is arguably gender (and racially!) blind. What I mean is that, if you can code well the computer doesn’t know (or care) if you’re a man or a woman. More on that here

But since there is a gender disparity that means, in the innovative, creative, and competitive side of engineering the needs and desires that are unique to women are being grossly overlooked

Dr. Laura Hoopes  writes, “With a more diverse workforce, scientific and technological products, services, and solutions are likely to be better designed and more likely to represent all users, and the direction of scientific inquiry will be guided by a broader array of experiences.” In the grand scheme of things, by taking measure and supporting initiatives the encourage women in the field of engineering we may arrive at solutions to problems faster, more efficiently, and more creatively.

There are changes and initiatives that are suggested to encourage more women in the field of engineering:

  • Attach greater social relevance in engineering since women tend to choose courses that have greater societal interaction
  • Expose young women to the field early on
  • Greater mentorship for women in the field of engineering
  • Ensure that workplace’s dominated by engineers welcome women
  • More here

What can you do?

  • If you’re a mother/father of a daughter and reading this, have her seriously consider science fields beyond medicine and biology. Check this out.

  • If you’re a women engineer (student or working) connect with other women in your faculty/workplace, brainstorm what changes can be made to engineering programs to make them more “woman-friendly”. Go out of your way to speak with young women still in high school making decisions about universities and colleges.

  • If you’re a woman pursuing a “soft-degree” (liberal arts etc.) don’t underestimate the importance of tech and science skills in the workforce. Carve out time and learn basic coding.

  • If you’re none of the above, make one small change. When speaking to young girls and young women I encourage you to have a different conversation with them. Instead of telling them that they “look nice” ask them what they think about space, ask them they learned in math class, and what books they’ve read.

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What about you?

Do you think this matters? What changes do you think universities need to make?

Divya Pahwa writes about young-lady career advice in the weekly series Pursuit, here on the  McGill Caps Blog.

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