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The engineering gender gap: it’s more than a numbers game

Universities and industry groups agree the path to engineering needs to be smoother for talented young women.
BY DIANE PETERS
JAN 09 2020

The engineering gender gap: it’s more than a numbers game

Universities and industry groups agree the path to engineering needs to be smoother for talented young women.

BY DIANE PETERS | JAN 09 2020

When Liz Hofer was in Grade 6, back in 2009, her Kitchener, Ontario, elementary school planned to separate the girls and boys for health education. But, while the girls were to talk menstruation, the boys would make cars using mousetraps and race them. “We were getting shortchanged,” recalls Ms. Hofer. When the school ignored the demands of Ms. Hofer and her female classmates for the same activity, the girls wrote up a petition. “When the teachers found out, they were furious. They said we went behind their backs.”

Ms. Hofer’s tech-minded dad – he teaches college-level electronics and had his daughter soldering at a young age – helped her build a mousetrap car at home. “In the end, we all got to see the boys race their cars. They didn’t go very far. The one I built went three times farther.”

Thanks to the support of her parents – “they were really good at encouraging me to be curious and creative” – and her strong math and science grades, Ms. Hofer looked to a future in STEM (the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics). A career quiz she completed suggested engineering, as did a friend. “I didn’t know what it was,” she admitted. Never mind: while her gender has at times come up as an issue in the classroom and during her work co-op, Ms. Hofer is set to graduate this spring from the mechatronics engineering program at McMaster University, where she is also co-president of the McMaster Women in Engineering Society.

Universities, government funders and engineering industry groups agree the path to engineering needs to be smoother for bright young women like Ms. Hofer. While health-related programs such as medicine and dentistry boast large numbers of women – as well as veterinary science, where 80 percent of students are female – engineering and the related fields of physics and mathematics lag. According to Engineers Canada, women make up a dismal 22 percent of engineering undergraduates, and they cluster in areas such as biosystems and environmental engineering. In mechanical, software and computer engineering, women comprise about 14 percent of students. Just 13 percent of licensed engineers in the country are women, according to Engineers Canada.

Over the past decade, Canada’s engineering schools have worked hard to change their gender balance. While the number of young women applying has tripled since 2005, according to a report by the Ontario Network of Women in Engineering (ONWiE), parity is a long way off. “There are lots of pieces to the puzzle, and if it were easy, we would have solved it,” says Kim Jones, associate professor in the department of chemical engineering at McMaster. As universities scramble to reach Engineers Canada’s seemingly modest “30 by 30” goal – having women represent 30 percent of newly licensed engineers by 2030 – they’re up against changing not just which programs girls choose while in high school, but society’s view of who belongs in the profession.


A few hundred years ago, in the Western world, educating women in the sciences was thought to impede their health and fertility. “In the 17th and 18th centuries, the practice of science was very much linked to gender roles,” says Tanja Tajmel, an associate professor with the Centre for Engineering in Society at Concordia University. “Now we are 200, 300 years later, and we still feel this heritage.” We give boys Lego and train sets. Girl-branded Lego is called Friends and features cute puppies, while the likes of Barbie once said, “Math is hard.”

“This gender gap is very much a North American or Western problem,” Dr. Tajmel says. In many countries with emerging economies, girls embrace tech. Riya Dutta, a fourth-year software engineering student at Concordia, emigrated to Canada from India while in Grade 11. “Where I grew up, people are encouraged to do science, as it leads to medicine and engineering, which are seen as superior fields.”

Gina Cody, the Concordia alumna who donated $15 million to her alma mater in 2018 to create the Gina Cody School of Engineering and Computer Science (the first faculty of engineering in Canada named after a woman), grew up in Iran, where women now make up more than half of students in computer science and engineering. “My father always pushed me to consider myself equal,” says Dr. Cody, who’s now retired but stays involved in the industry, mainly through education projects. “In North America, when it comes to gender issues, we consider ourselves more advanced than in the Middle East or Eastern Europe. But, on this matter, they have passed us. We need to question why,” she says.

In Canada, girls get the message early on about their place in science. Last summer, Dr. Jones tried to enrol her son and his girl pal, both in Grade 3, in a McMaster summer camp called Computers and Technology. “She was reluctant to go to the camp. Not because she wasn’t interested in the topic, but because the name made her think it would be all boys,” says Dr. Jones, who suggested her colleagues change the name, despite its apparent neutrality.

In high school, girls favour biology over chemistry and physics. “Physics is the least popular science course for girls, and yet it is a required course to apply to engineering,” says Mary Wells, dean of the college of engineering and physical sciences at the University of Guelph. Even those young women who have the prerequisites to enter a STEM program are often lured away by other options. “Girls are much more well-rounded. They have huge choice,” says Dr. Wells.

What’s more, when women engineering students first arrive on campus, they don’t always feel welcome or safe. When dropping her daughter off at Queen’s University to begin her undergraduate degree in engineering, Dr. Cody recalls seeing male engineering students smacking their school leather jackets down on the sidewalk and on the road in front of cars – one of several “bro culture” behaviours that revolve around the jackets. “It’s really intimidating,” she says.

Jeanie Malone, now a PhD student in biomedical engineering at the University of British Columbia, got involved in the UBC Engineering Undergraduate Society while in her second year. “When I started, the only thing they were known for was being drunk and loud,” she says.

In the classroom, female students are surrounded by guys, including male instructors. Statistics Canada numbers dating back to 2010-11 show just 12 percent of engineering professors in Canada were women, and only a slim seven percent were full professors.

In one of her first labs in her first year at McMaster, a male classmate said to Ms. Hofer, “You look like you have nice handwriting, you should take notes.” Ms. Malone, similarly, found herself taking the less technical group roles in her early university years. “It happens every time,” she says. “It’s not fair to me and it’s not fair to my teammates.” She later began pushing back and doing more hands-on work and calculations.

Statistics Canada numbers show young women leave engineering school at a slightly higher rate than men, but then more women transfer into these programs later, evening out their attrition rates. “Men drop out into the other sciences, but women go into humanities,” says Dr. Cody. Guys often transfer to engineering-related college programs.

U.S. numbers suggest 40 percent of women who graduate with engineering degrees either never enter the profession or eventually leave it. “Study after study shows that one of the key reasons women leave engineering is what they call a chilly workplace,” says Dr. Jones. Ms. Malone says many of her female colleagues experienced harassment during their co-ops. Ms. Hofer, during her co-op placement, was featured repeatedly in a promotional video – clearly the company wanted to look more gender diverse. “It took me away from my work,” she says.

A 2017 survey by the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers found grim working conditions: one in two women feel disrespected on the job, one in three get paid less than men, and one in four experience discrimination, harassment or bullying. Women’s low ratios in these workplaces make it difficult for them to push back. “When we are the only woman in the room, we feel lonely. We feel intimidated,” says Dr. Cody.


In 2005, Lawrence Summers, then president of Harvard University, told a crowd it was “issues of intrinsic aptitude” that explain why women lag in math and science careers. “That launched a lot of focused research to understand the social barriers that are playing a role,” says Toni Schmader, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Social Psychology at UBC.

This work was already underway in Canada, triggered by the founding in 1996 of the Chairs for Women in Science and Engineering Program by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council. Valerie Davidson, now a professor emerita at U of Guelph, held the Ontario chair in 2005 when she joined a roundtable at Queen’s with representatives from Ontario’s faculties of engineering. “We realized we needed to resource this,” she recalls. The group founded ONWiE, with Dr. Davidson as chair, and soon launched the Go Eng Girl outreach program, which sees Ontario universities run free, one-day programs for teen girls.

“We give them experience in engineering by doing hands-on activities that link to real problems,” says Dr. Davidson. Parents also learn about the profession and its activities. “It’s that support and role modeling from parents that really has a long-term effect,” says Dr. Jones, who currently serves as the chair for ONWiE. Go Eng Girl, which now runs in seven provinces, and two related programs (Go Code Girls and an engineering badge day for Girl Guides), have engaged about 45,000 girls to date. The organization collects data from its programs and has gotten feedback such as, “Before today I thought engineering was just for boys.”

In 2017, representatives from a range of disciplines and universities formed Engendering Success in STEM (ESS). Bolstered by a $2.5-million grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, its goal is to use an evidence-based approach to reduce the effects of gender bias. “We are focused on trying to understand the kinds of subtle barriers women can face at different points in the pipeline,” says Dr. Schmader of UBC, who serves as director of ESS.

UBC invests heavily in outreach aimed at young women. It runs programs in 51 different communities every year, including camps for girls, and programs in partnership with girls-focused clubs. The university also trains middle-school teachers in engineering basics. “The problem is no one is teaching it,” says UBC civil engineering professor Sheryl Staub-French.

Engineering school Polytechnique Montréal reaches 20,000 children a year through its 28-year-old science outreach program, Folie Technique, which offers a variety of activities, including a kids’ summer camp. The outreach program goes into elementary and high school classes, introducing the world of engineering and science to students throughout the year. In the kids’ camp, fully 30 percent of attendees are girls. “We always make sure there’s one male and one female student instructing, so every student in the classroom can identify with one or the other,” says mechanical engineering professor Annie Ross. “Some of the students who end up at Polytechnique, when we ask them what brought them here, they say, ‘When I was 12 years old I went to Folie Technique summer camp, and it was great.’”

Riya Dutta says it was the student representatives from Women in Engineering at Concordia, whom she met while on a campus tour, that made her select Concordia’s engineering program. “They seemed so great, these women – and they were doing great,” she recalls. “I would not have felt that comfortable being around a bunch of guys.” Indeed, young women seem the most successful at enticing other young women to the profession. “Every program we have, we use near-peers. Girls can look and see themselves. That’s the big challenge: there’s no question about their ability to do it, it’s really just about not seeing themselves there,” says Dr. Staub-French.

Student-led women’s groups on campus, like the one that inspired Ms. Dutta, offer orientation and social events to help newcomers feel welcome, and they’re helping to erode engineering schools’ infamous bro culture. These groups also give women tools: Ms. Hofer attended a session about microaggressions in the workplace hosted by McMaster’s Women in Engineering group. “I didn’t know what it was before that. I just knew sometimes certain comments made me uncomfortable.”

To further help new female students feel at home, in 2016 the University of Waterloo created a living-learning community for women in engineering at St. Paul’s University College. About 60 women in first-year engineering live in residence together, and connect via extracurricular activities and mentorship programs. “That’s been a hidden, successful little gem,” says Karim Karim, a Waterloo engineering professor and associate dean for outreach.

Importantly, engineering schools are starting to weave information about diversity and prejudice into their curriculums. “We’re trying to shape how we train engineers,” says Dr. Staub-French of UBC. She and her colleagues have added a module about inclusion in the school’s introductory engineering course, and an upper-year project management course covers ethics, inclusion and diversity. At McMaster, Dr. Jones is about to launch a course on inclusion in the workplace, and professors there now organize lab groups to either include two or more women, or none at all, and make sure roles get rotated – no more girls getting stuck taking notes all year.

Universities know they also need more female faculty members. Université de Sherbrooke has increased its female engineering faculty numbers from a paltry six percent to 12 percent in recent years by changing the way it hires. “We always favoured productivity in research based on CV analysis, which led us to the same types of researchers. So, we changed our hiring criteria, which now focus on various competencies,” says Patrik Doucet, the university’s dean of engineering.

The faculty now values teaching skills and collaboration, makes sure all new professors have mentors, plus professors get assessed using new criteria when applying for tenure. As well, the engineering school aims to achieve 20 percent female faculty by 2022, thanks to a new program that will see it fund eight female postdoctoral fellows who’ll have a guaranteed faculty job afterwards. “We have eight engineering programs and we will get eight new female professors,” says Dr. Doucet.


In the end, the measure of all this effort will be whether more companies hire and retain more women engineers. Groups such as the Ontario Society for Professional Engineers are trying: it’s launched an app called DiversifySTEM that offers mini lessons on promoting gender diversity and changing culture. Engineers Canada has been working with the Association of Consulting Engineering Companies to champion diversity in its members companies.

Dr. Schmader did a STEM workplace survey of 1,250 people and found 85 percent of men consider themselves allies to women, while just 54 percent of women label the guys around them in the same way. “There is a mismatch,” she says. What’s more, schools trying to draw more women into the profession keep facing serious gaps in how engineers are perceived in society. “People have misconceptions about engineering. If you Google it, all they show is white men in hard hats,” says Dr. Staub-French.

Dr. Cody says that, according to Engineers Canada, the country will be short by as many as 100,000 engineers by 2025. “These and other STEM jobs pay well, and they’re the future of our economy,” she says. “To address this shortage, we need more women engineers. If their representation in these careers doesn’t rise, Canada will be left behind economically.’’

Meanwhile, a male-dominated engineering profession has made critical errors, from cars that are safer for men than women to a dearth of women-sized space suits. A diverse profession that includes the brightest minds will do better. “We need big thinkers,” says Dr. Wells. “We have big problems in this world.”

PUBLISHED BY
Diane Peters
Diane Peters is a Toronto-based writer and editor.
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  1. Jeff / January 10, 2020 at 15:52

    Yes, women who have the capability, which I assume is on par with men with the capability, should be encouraged to follow STEM career paths. Is not an issue that when they are young we tell kids to go into a field that interests them. I note that the grade 11 immigrant said they are encouraged to take these paths because they are the superior fields, not because they interest the young women of India more. Granted that breaking the stigma of STEM being ‘just for boys’ is important but that work is already underway.

    The lure of success vs the lure of being happy, not just fine, with your career. More kids need to be helped in high school to realize that the chances are, even if they get to do something in a topic they love, work is work and will always have times they are unhappy, therefore they should choose paths with the promise of success due to their aptitude not based on the the idea of their career being the primary meaning making aspect of their lives, and that balance of work, family, hobbies, volunteering etc is important for a satisfying life.
    Tough sell.

  2. Lorne Carmichael / January 15, 2020 at 12:19

    The campaign to entice more women into STEM fields has to be the single most ineffective social engineering program of the last 50 years. The share of women in Computing, for example, peaked around 1985 and despite a few wiggles has been on a downward trend ever since. Smart women in general are doing fine, of course, entering Medicine and Law in record numbers.

    On reason for this – that women’s dominance over men in all fields except math and certain sciences gives men a comparative advantage in computing even though their average grades in math might be no better – was outlined in an earlier UA article:

    https://www.universityaffairs.ca/opinion/in-my-opinion/male-female-imbalance-in-stem-comes-down-to-economics/

    If that’s not enough you can add to this the relative preference by males for things over people and the greater variance of male math ability. In the US males outnumber females among those who score better than 700 out of 800 on the Math SAT exam by about 8 to 5. This number has been stable for 20 or more years and holds even though their average scores are about the same and more women than men take the test.

    When we look at the success of women in Medicine, Law, and all fields other than some particular STEM disciplines, it becomes clear that women in Canada are making choices and they are doing fine. On the other hand, if your school doesn’t have an engineering faculty then your female students outnumber your male students by about two to one.

    I think it’s time we started thinking about the real issue. How do we get more boys to engage with education and carry on to university?