In December 2016’s column we discussed the decision by my university’s engineering school to focus on the recruitment and retention of female engineering 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. Currently, the University of Waterloo has more than 1,300 female engineering students. Waterloo Engineering, the largest engineering school in Canada, has more female students than most engineering schools in Canada have students.
The need to better develop this under-represented talent pool resonates within government, science and engineering professional associations and organizations, 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 and design solutions. I have seen firsthand how certain engineering disciplines – such as mechanical, electrical, computer and software engineering – struggle to attract females into their programs.
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.
Ask girls in grades 4-6 what an engineer does, and there is a good chance she will draw you a man in overalls and a cap driving a train. Yet ask her what a doctor or teacher does for a living, and she will draw capable women with stethoscopes helping patients or reading to children.
The lack of good engineering narrative has been going on for a long time. Our surveys show that most women entering university for an engineering education do so not because they heard good things about engineering in their daily lives but because a person they trusted (teacher, guidance counselor or relative) suggested it. For those without trusted persons offering this guidance, the present tech-sector engineering narrative is turning away many bright and talented young women.
These narratives are important. They frame our understanding of the world, our possibilities and ourselves. They can have a powerful influence over people and their impression of a culture both within the group and outside it. Harmful narratives lead to stereotyping and prejudice. Engaging, meaningful narratives lead to clarity and understanding. People’s beliefs based on the current engineering narrative determine their attitudes, behaviors and choices, even if these perceptions are completely disconnected from reality.
Look around you. In most parts of the developed world, the makers of technology are disconnected from the result. Our children play with their iPads, our grandparents post on Facebook, our mothers Instagram their yoga class and coding, thankfully, is now in the elementary-school curriculum. Yet the software program helping your aunt monitor her diabetes, or the mechatronics technology improving prosthetics amputees, or the data scientists unraveling the wisdom buried in big data so energy and water use can be decreased, is rarely positioned as the work of engineers. In developed countries, clean water, computers and complex transportation and infrastructure systems are taken for granted – yet the people who designed and created them are absent. As I tell my engineering students, the fingerprints of engineers are embedded in everything we use, even if we can’t see them.
Attracting more women into engineering programs is not just a university-level challenge. It also needs support from industry and professional societies. One way the Forging Industry Educational and Research Foundation helps attract the best and brightest women to the industry is the Forging Industry Women’s Scholarship. Three scholarships are awarded each year to women pursuing degrees in engineering and business disciplines who have the desire and potential to reach executive or senior leadership levels in the forging industry.
Applications for 2017 scholarships are now available. If you’d like more information about the scholarships or would like to support the work of the Forging Foundation to encourage women in leadership roles of the industry, please contact Karen Lewis at 216-781-6260 or firstname.lastname@example.org.