Launching catapults against male dominance

Engaging young women in engineering

“I think only a few of us already know what we really want to do when we’re in high school,” says Rana Nasrallah, an executive member of Promoting Opportunities for Women in Engineering (POWE). Now a U3 Chemical Engineering student, Nasrallah is helping to ensure young women know exactly what their options are in the field of engineering. Nasrallah helped organize one of POWE’s largest events of the year at McGill: “Conference for Future Women Engineers,” a day-long conference held last Friday for 93 young women in high school and CEGEP, with an aim of encouraging young women to pursue a career in the field.

The conference kicked off at 8:30 a.m. with icebreakers followed by a professional panel. The keynote speaker this year, Teena Fazio, is a McGill alumna who has worked for the past ten years as an engineer in the mining and metals industry. The day included lab tours around campus, a catapult-building competition, and a panel featuring a female student from each specialized field of engineering offered at McGill.

Each student spoke about their experiences and the choices that led them to choosing their specific discipline, followed by a question and answer period. Panelist and Mining and Materials Engineering student Padina Suky was asked, “Are your parents happy you’re in mining?” She answered by saying it took two years to convince them, but added, “Now that they see that I am happy, they’re happy.”

With the associated social stigma of females entering the field, and a current underrepresentation of women in engineering, the presence of groups like POWE are more important than ever. According to the 2012 McGill Enrolment Report, women comprised only 24.5 per cent of incoming engineering students at the university. Across Canada, women make up an even smaller percentage. According to Engineers Canada, only 17.7 per cent of students enrolled in undergraduate engineering programs were women – down 2.9 per cent from 2001.

For Nasrallah, POWE is great not only because it encourages more women to enter the field, but because it also offers more opportunities for women already in engineering. For instance, POWE hosted a speed-networking event where professional female engineers were invited to network with female engineering students in order to foster relationships in the greater community. POWE has a large presence in the engineering faculty at McGill and works throughout the year to facilitate various events.
The existence of female role models and mentors in engineering are vital in encouraging more young women to enter a field that is traditionally male dominated. Events like the Conference for Future Women Engineers encourage the deconstruction of traditional gender roles related to the workforce. I was not the only person inspired by POWE that day – the smiling faces of the 93 young women participating spoke for themselves, as they actively changed how we see the field of engineering today.