May 17, 2011

Women Wanted for Study of Engineering

By the time Monique Frize graduated with a degree in electrical engineering in 1966, she had learned to be “one of the boys.”

Nearly fifty years later, women engineers are not such an oddity and, according to Frize, can maintain their femininity in the male-dominated field. A professor at both Carleton’s Department of Systems and Computer Engineering and the University of Ottawa’s School of Information Technology and Engineering since 1997, Frize says progress has been made in attracting women to the field of engineering, but there has been some ground lost.

In April, Frize chaired the national Canadian Committee on Women in Engineering’s CCWE+20 workshop in Ottawa on the 20th anniversary of the first CCWE report, More Than Just Numbers, that made ambitious recommendations for attracting women into the fields of mathematics, science and engineering. About 70 key stakeholders, decision-makers and students discussed the accomplishments of the past two decades, assessed differences between today’s young generation and that of 20 years ago, and developed strategies to increase the participation of women in engineering study programs, as professors, in the workplace, and in the governance of professional associations of engineers over the next five years.

Many women leave the profession between years 5 and 10

The murder of 13 female engineering students at l’École Polytechnique in Montreal in 1989 and a new national Chair for women in engineering jolted the contemplation of the status of women in the profession.

Today, universities hire more women professors, the “macho” climate has improved, and the industry has harassment policies. Nevertheless, says Frize, “We have not seen a lot of societal progress, and many women leave the profession between years 5 and 10.”

The profession hopes to see women make up 30 per cent of engineering students and 15 per cent of professionals by 2016.

Less than one in five engineering undergraduate students are female and less than one in four study at the master’s and doctoral levels. One in 10 becomes a professional engineer.

Frize suggests that stereotyping, a lack of role models, biased attitudes and isolation discourage girls and young women from pursuing science and math.

“How do we dispel entrenched, hero-style and geek-style engineering myths and replace them with a team-building, collaborative reality?” asks Frize, who hopes conference attendees will return home and follow up with some of the recommendations by 2016.

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