News  Forum explores approaches to inclusivity in engineering

Event part of move to expand equity initiatives in the faculty

On October 9, the first Forum on Diversity and Inclusivity in Engineering was held in the SSMU ballroom, with about eighty attendees including students, faculty, and staff.

“This forum started because last year I had a discussion with some of the students about having a safer space in engineering, and one of the ideas was to have a bigger discussion to engage the faculty – professors – and the [teaching assistants] as well,” Christopher Tegho, former Engineering Undergraduate Society (EUS) Equity Commissioner, told The Daily.

As the event’s keynote speaker, Karen Tonso, an engineering professor at Wayne State University dedicated to engineering education and diversity, highlighted the benefits of diversity in engineering. She also explored how diversity can be promoted within the engineering environment.

“Without participation of the members of diverse communities, engineers run the risk of having a myopic view of the world and of their technological creations,” said Tonso.

Tonso argued that there needs to be a shift in how engineering deals with diversity. Currently, she explained, equity is treated with compensatory actions, where “you compensate for the disadvantages to enhance the capabilities of members of underrepresented communities, but you’re expecting them to assimilate to the existing culture.”

Tonso called for a transition to participatory action, “guaranteeing the participation as equals of members of diverse communities, the needs, interests, and perspectives of all included in making engineering a way of life that’s worth having by everyone.”

A panel followed Tonso’s address with panelists including a professor, a student, and staff working in admissions and counselling.

During the question period, one audience member brought up the concern of engaging the broader community, since audiences at the forum and events like it are often already interested and involved with the issues discussed.

Addressing the question, EUS Equity Commissioner Simrin Desai pointed out the value in having this type of forum in spite of the relatively narrow audience.

“People always say that about these events, ‘you are preaching to the choir’ […] and I think the conviction that Chris [Tegho] and I had to organize an event like this, if that conviction can be spread to other people […] they themselves can do something about it, and it becomes this whole big domino effect,” she told The Daily. “Like dye in the water.”

Other members of the audience also responded, pointing to the work of organizations and groups dedicated to spreading the message about diversity and inclusivity throughout McGill and the surrounding community, such as Promoting Opportunities for Women in Engineering (POWE).

EUS President Robert Forestell, who was also present at the forum, commented on the increased presence of and involvement with equity in general.

“I think that people are being more and more progressive in their thinking and realizing that there still are a lot of problems,” said Forestell.

Related to the event, a whiteboard was also put up earlier that day in the McConnell building dedicated to expressing thoughts on diversity.

“People were actually engaging. Every time someone walked in the building, they looked at it while they were walking by, so getting that in their minds is a start,” EUS equity committee member Emilie Froeliger told The Daily.

After the event, Froeliger said that while she was extremely pleased with how it had gone, she had hoped to touch on trans issues in engineering during the forum.

“I don’t think right now it’s a super safe space for transgender people,” Froeliger told The Daily. “[The] engineering community, [it’s] very cisgender [and] heteronormative.”

Creating change through conversation

The EUS equity committee, which organized the forum, is an informal body that was newly formed this year. It evolved as a group of interested students around the Equity Commissioner, a position that was added to EUS two years ago.

Tegho said that when he was Equity Commissioner last year, he did not feel that the problem of equity in engineering could be tackled by just one person, and began calling on people to help with the position.

The committee has already started several initiatives to promote equity in engineering, including giving a presentation as part of FACC 100 – a mandatory first-year engineering course – on gender, sexuality, and safe space, which Desai and Froeliger said was an opportunity to speak to those not necessarily interested in equity.

“It was definitely interesting to see points of view of people that don’t necessarily think about these things, because then you are talking to a larger audience that doesn’t necessarily have the same opinions as most of the EUS equity committee,” said Froeliger.

“I think if we went into a FACC 100 class, and there were no bad comments, then no one would come out of that class learning as much as they would have [if] there were bad comments and we addressed them,” said Desai.

Overall, the organizers were pleased with the forum and said they would continue to work on the issue of equity in engineering.

“I think it went really well, there were lots of people, and people were able to express what they wanted. The forum was not just this event, but all the discussions that were initiated before […] and I think that the discussions will continue,” said Tegho. “We hope that [the forum] is going to happen every year – the purpose of it was to create support for people who want space to share their ideas, thoughts, experiences.”