THE BLOG

It's Time To Increase Opportunities For Women in Engineering School

03/03/2015 09:40 EST | Updated 05/03/2015 05:59 EDT

We know we're all better off when the people taking decisions are a mixture of women and men. The increasing presence of women in cabinets, in boardrooms and in positions of leadership throughout our society gives us a balanced perspective on the challenges ahead of us.

If we can get more women involved in building what are the foundations of our lives -- our cities, our health, our infrastructure -- we will all benefit.

Once bastions of the male elite, professions like medicine, law and architecture increasingly reflect the gender dichotomy of the world around us. No sector is perfect by any means but there is at least evidence of meaningful progress in many parts of our economy.

The same cannot be said for engineering. Using almost every measure available, the representation and the opportunities for women are unacceptably low.

Engineering schools must accept their share of the blame. The enrolment rates for female students remain pitifully low. The Canadian average is just 17.5 per cent. It's a stubborn problem that's shown a remarkable resistance to efforts by many in academia and the profession to shift the needle. We have seen occasional spikes in female enrolment but we have failed to translate this into a sustained change over time.

We live in a world where engineers are wielding greater power and influence over our lives than ever before. In a recent survey of the 100 top performing global CEOs, 24 have engineering degrees. That number is only likely to grow as our economy becomes ever more driven by technology.

Women must play a role alongside men in the big decisions ahead of us, and in solving our greatest challenges. We have a better chance of addressing tough, intractable problems if we include more perspectives, and end the dominance of one gender.

Now is the time to act. Canada has an opportunity to take the lead just as we have in so many other issues of equality and fairness. The time for excuses has long elapsed. Engineers, and schools in particular, need to be prepared to take a long hard look inwards to the often unconscious prejudices and biases that have remained untouched for too long. They also need to look outwards to organizations that have begun to successfully tackle this issue and to leaders in other professions who began to face up to this problem long ago.

To kick-start faster change in female representation we must consider a three-stage approach:

Firstly we must do more research to diagnose the problems we need to solve rather than simply relying on intuition or instinct, including learning lessons from those outside engineering who have demonstrated success in these challenges.

Secondly, we must invest in the leadership in engineering schools required to bring about change over the long term. We can't simply leave the gender challenge as an outreach activity or an add-on. It must be integral to every decision we make at every level of the organization.

Thirdly, we must be prepared to invest resources in the actions and the changes we need to make. Then we must be accountable for progress and measure what's working and what's not working.

Like any big problem, none of this will be accomplished alone. All of us have a responsibility to play a role in the changes that will not only make engineering more inclusive. It will elevate the status of the profession.

We must all be prepared to state, categorically, that engineering can be 50:50 and should be 50:50. On March 8, International Women's Day 2015, we should all commit to 50:50 and start doing more to make it a reality.

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