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Attracting and Retaining Women in Engineering

Women in science have made many advances in recent years, but as delegates at the recent 12th International Conference of Women Engineers and Scientists (ICWES12) discussed, much more work needs to be done to attract and retain women, particularly in areas such as engineering.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

While many more women are now enrolled in higher education and technical programs in Canada than ever before, their enrolment is biased toward specific fields. For example, more than half of the graduates in the biological sciences are women. But according to a recent Canadian Engineering Resources Board (CERB) survey of Canadian universities, the number of women enrolled in full-time undergraduate engineering programs has remained steady since 2000 at only 20% of the total. This, nevertheless, represents a substantial increase over the past 25 years--women were only 4% of the total enrolment in 1975. The numbers are similar in graduate school, in which in 2000 approximately 24% of full-time engineering master?s students and 17% of full-time doctoral students were women. The number of engineering PhDs awarded to women has remained relatively steady for the last 5 years at around 13%.

Karen Martinson trained as an engineer and is currently manager of engineering resources at the Canadian Council of Professional Engineers (CCPE). CCPE is a national organization representing the 12 provincial and territorial engineering licensing bodies in Canada. Martinson suspects that the reason for stalled growth in enrolment numbers lies in the fact that there is still a certain lack of interest in the profession amongst girls. ?It will take time to break down perceived barriers of the ?geeky? engineer and broaden general awareness of the different career options open to women in this area", she says, adding that the new ?Generation-E project" being funded by Human Resource Development Canada should help improve awareness at the high school level.

Clearly the recent increases in the numbers of female engineering students has not translated into similar shifts in workforce demographics--only 7% of licensed engineers in the government and private sectors are women, with 9% in academia. ?It will take time for the 20% enrolment to translate into a larger percentage in the profession, since there are already 160,000 engineers" in Canada, says Martinson. But she concedes that ?there is certainly a need to increase participation of women in the profession." Martinson herself completed her civil engineering program in 1988, when her graduating class was about 10% women.

Agenda for Change

The need to encourage more women to enter engineering careers and to retain those women once they?re in has become a growing concern for CCPE. Martinson and her colleague Susan Smandych, chair of the CCPE Women in Engineering (WIE) committee, reported to ICWES12 participants on CCPE?s latest efforts to raise the profile of women in the engineering profession. Working with CERB, CCPE carried out a national consultation process with the provincial and territorial engineering licensing bodies, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council Chairs for Women in Science and Engineering, the National Council of Deans of Engineering and Applied Science, the Canadian Federation of Engineering Students, the Association of Consulting Engineers of Canada, and several other interested stakeholder groups in 2000/2001. The end result was the development of a CCPE policy on women in engineering intended to send the message that ?the engineering profession supports principles of fairness and equity in all aspects of engineering culture, practice, and education."

The policy, some of which has been implemented already, takes several tacks. More specifically, it focuses on representation of women in governance within CCPE; enhancing youth awareness of engineering careers; improving the work environment and career path choices for women engineers, including flexible work options and equitable compensation; and increasing public and professional awareness of the contribution of women engineers. Among the tools that CCPE is developing to help meet these goals are CCPE postgraduate scholarships for engineering students, workshops presenting motivational messages and key skills required in the engineering work environment, and establishing a national database of role models.

The WIE committee also established focus groups involving 85 engineers--both men and women--in major Canadian cities, to discuss and find solutions to the issues facing women professional engineers. Martinson says that some of the outcomes of these meetings were quite surprising in that the women participants felt that whatever mechanisms were available to them should also be made available to men. The vast majority of women participants agreed that mentoring was high on the list of needs and would like to see professional associations provide hands-on mentoring mechanisms and opportunities. Career and skills development, a better work environment, and pay equity were also among the priorities mentioned by focus group participants.

What is evident from these discussions is that efforts to increase the numbers of women employees in academia and the private sector will need to consider solutions to the reasons women tend to forego careers in engineering in the first place. The social stigma of entering a male-dominated field with a macho culture, the fear of intimidation and discrimination, and the lack of mentors and role models in positions of power are commonly cited reasons for women exiting or failing to enter the engineering workforce.

The Way Forward

Only 2 years in, the WIE policy is already having an impact, according to Martinson. A CCPE Award for the Support of Women in the Engineering Profession was offered for the first time this year, and, says Martinson, ?One of the recipients even mentioned to me that the acknowledgement she has received through this award has been very helpful to her work and career."

?We are moving forward", concludes Martinson. ?We will also be carefully monitoring the results of the 2002 National Survey of the Engineering Profession to determine what key areas we should be focusing on over the next several years."