The University of Waterloo (UW) in Ontario has more than 1,300 female engineering students. In fact, Waterloo Engineering, the largest engineering school in Canada, has more female students than most engineering schools in Canada have students.

UW’s Engineering Department attracts a high number of women to pursue engineering degrees. However, this was not always the case. A decade ago, Waterloo Engineering made a conscious decision to focus on the recruitment and retention of female students into engineering programs across Canada. Part of this strategy involved the creation of a new Associate Dean Outreach position that would oversee both outreach and diversity issues for the faculty.

I feel very fortunate to have been chosen as the inaugural Associate Dean. This attention and focus on diversity is paying off, and this past September Waterloo Engineering welcomed its largest pool of female engineering students (nearly 30%) into its first-year class. Waterloo Engineering attracts some of the highest numbers of women into its engineering programs compared to other universities in Ontario and across Canada (Figure 1).

Although our engineering department has enjoyed success at attracting women into its programs, if we look more broadly at the engineering profession in Canada and the U.S., women continue to be significantly under-represented. The need to better develop this talent pool resonates within government, science and engineering professional associations, and academia. There is an established consensus about the benefits of increased diversity to produce the broadest perspectives possible to solve problems that matter to our world. It is imperative these disciplines practice purposeful female outreach and recruitment, encourage and promote the entry of women into these industries, nurture female careers and celebrate female leaders.

I have seen firsthand how engineering disciplines such as mechanical, electrical, computer and software struggle to attract females into their programs. Across Canada, these disciplines have some of the lowest representation of women at close to 12%. In contrast, programs that even in their titles have strong societal relevance or context (such as bio-engineering and environmental engineering) enjoy over 40% participation of women (Figure 2).

Research addressing the reasons behind the gender imbalance in education and career selection is vast and offers a range of explanations. One of the main challenges identified by studies on the recruitment and retention of women in science and engineering continues to be the lack of female role models. It is essential at all levels  to ensure that girls and women feel that they belong in technical disciplines and are able to envision themselves having vibrant, fulfilling careers.

I see this disconnect about engineers’ societal value on a regular basis. My team at UW runs one of North America’s largest engineering outreach programs. We conduct programs for local elementary and high schools, so we see firsthand what our youth think of engineering.