Commentary | The problem with engineering is non-engineers’ misinformation

Correction appended

When I was looking at universities, I considered many different engineering programs across the country. McGill’s Faculty of Engineering was particularly attractive because of the high level of female enrolment. In fact, engineering at McGill has one of the highest percentages of female enrolment in the country – approximately 24 per cent across all departments, well above the national average of 16 per cent. Enrolment ratios vary widely between individual majors, with chemical and civil engineering close to parity, and electrical and mining having a higher male enrollment.

In her article “Engineering Frosh is Sexist” (Commentary, September 10), Sarah Mortimer unknowingly highlighted one of the biggest challenges facing women in engineering: the misinformation of non-engineers. Our current paradigm tells us that men dominate in engineering and that women face too much oppression or discrimination within the field to succeed. Consequently, young girls simply do not consider engineering as a career option. Unfortunately over the last decade, female enrolment in engineering programs at all Canadian universities has declined while enrolment in general has been increasing. Most engineers, male and female, are quite distressed by this trend, and national and provincial engineering societies in Canada have created programs geared toward encouraging young girls to consider engineering and toward promoting the cause of female engineers.

At McGill, Promoting Opportunities for Women in Engineering (P.O.W.E.) organizes an annual conference called Future Women in Engineering for girls from Montreal-area high schools and CEGEPs. The girls are invited to spend a day at McGill to learn about engineering. They participate in a design competition, listen to testimonies from professors, professionals, and students from all the engineering departments, and tour several labs.

When asked if they faced any opposition to pursuing a career in the field, many of the participants told stories of non-engineer parents or teachers discouraging them. I can sympathize: both my physics teacher and my guidance counsellor discouraged me from studying engineering, despite the fact that science and math were where I excelled in school. Luckily, many of the participants and other P.O.W.E. committee members had stories of a relative who was an engineer or of a particularly encouraging parent or teacher who helped them to choose engineering.

My experience with Engineering Frosh at McGill was anything but one of oppression or discrimination. One of my favourite things about studying engineering is the sense of community and the importance of teamwork. Frosh was the first time that I had that feeling. Through design competitions, elaborate pranks, and by uniting in a ridiculous song based on innuendo and word play, first-year engineering students, both male and female, were welcomed into the engineering community. To suggest that Engineering Frosh is misogynistic or sexist detracts from the event’s true value.

The main challenges facing women in engineering today are most certainly not at school. Of the women that graduate in engineering, unfortunately, not many pursue careers in the field, but rather in management, technical sales, or another discipline entirely. Women studying engineering today need to be given the necessary tools to adapt to the current male-dominated workforce. They need encouragement from everyone, both male and female, engineers and non-engineers, to pursue a career in engineering so that the next generation of female engineers does not have to face the same problems. Even more importantly, we all need to work together to encourage today’s young women to consider engineering as a legitimate career option, so that one day there may be equality in the workplace. This certainly won’t be accomplished by debating the allegedly sexist and misogynistic lyrics of a silly song.

Jill Vandenbosch is a U3 Chemical Engineering student and is the chair of POWE. Write her at jill.vandenbosch@mail.mcgill.ca.

In the original version of this article, Jill Vandenbosch’s piece should have read: “the misinformation of non-engineers.” What’s more, the title of her piece should have been “The problem with engineering is non-engineers’ misinformation.” In the same article, we called POWE’s conference for girls considering engineering “Future Women Engineers.” Though this title is used sporadically on POWE’s website, Ms. Vandenbosch would have preferred we call the conference “Future Women in Engineering.” We apologize for the error.


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