The Lassonde School of Engineering at York University is Canada’s first engineering school to set a goal of 50:50 gender balance
“By twelve years old, most girls can’t do math.”
“If they study science, they will have to give-up arts or
“High school physics is too hard for girls anyways.”
It is not uncommon to hear these statements from parents, teachers, friends, relatives, classmates and girls themselves. Possibly without realizing it, an unconscious bias has been established in Canadian society dissuading girls from the fields of math and science. It’s no wonder that so few girls and women become engineers. In 2015, women held only 12 per cent of licenses to work in the engineering profession across Canada. Almost 25 years ago, I was part of a speaker’s panel that discussed how to encourage more women into professions. I spoke about engineering, and recent female graduates of law and medicine spoke about their respective professions. Today, the professions of medicine and law are leaders in inviting and encouraging women into their fields, but engineering has barely made a dent. From 1991 to 2013, the undergraduate enrolment of women in engineering programs across Canada went from 16.1 per cent to 19.0 per cent, an increase of just 2.9 per cent over a 22 year period.
A tremendous amount of outreach and effort by numerous organizations over these years has been focused on drawing girls into engineering with programs like science camps, coding sessions and robotics clubs. As valuable as these activities are, the profession has seen little change in its gender split. Canada needs more women in engineering. Research has shown that if a group includes more women, its collective performance rises. Gender diversity also shows a positive effect on team innovation in ground-breaking research. With Canada ranking just 26’h globally for business innovation, this is clearly an opportunity to drive economic growth with a diverse set of contributions. It is predicted that Canada is facing major impending labour shortages in fields like engineering. By excluding women from the engineering profession, a highly competent and productive segment of the labour market is currently underutilized. Thus, promoting women’s advancement in engineering would diversify this field that is expected to power much of Canada’s economic engine, meet projected labour demands, and boost innovation and productivity.
The Lassonde School of Engineering at York University has taken a leadership role to address this complex problem of women’s underrepresentation in engineering. On March 3, 2015, it made a bold announcement during National Engineering Month and ahead of International Women’s Day. The School launched the Lassonde 50:50 Challenge to become the first engineering school in Canada to reach a 50:50 gender balance. “Achieving a 50:50 gender balance should be a necessity for every engineering school. It is the single most significant change we can make to improve engineering education in Canada,” said Janusz Kozinski, founding Dean of the Lassonde School of Engineering at the time of the launch. The Lassonde 50:50 Challenge is the first of its kind in Canada. I was selected as the School’s first Assistant Dean, Inclusivity and Diversity to lead this project. Alongside me are two honourary co-chairs, Silicon Valley entrepreneur and philanthropist Sandra Bergeron, and Katty Kay, journalist and coauthor of The Confidence Code and Womenomics. It is a real honour to be a part of this team affecting change on an issue so close to my heart. I believe achieving this goal calls for a comprehensive approach including changing cultural biases and beliefs about what men and women do best throughout their education, training and professionalization. At the public and high school level, we will support initiatives that help girls view themselves as competent in math and science, and help girls associate their desire to help people and society with being an engineer. For example, girls are interested in solving climate change, ending poverty and designing tools that help people – all outcomes that an engineer can contribute to. So we will focus on programming that helps girls find a fit between their own values and what they perceive engineers do. The Lassonde School has been created to be the home of Rennaissance Engineering: a place where students are free to explore their passions and gain different perspectives from the world around them. Our Renaissance undergraduate curriculum will give students a truly multi-disciplinary education. With the opportunity to take courses in law, business and international development alongside engineering, students can explore ideas such as social entrepreneurship. We will experiment with the teaching environment to support female students’ full participation. The “flipped classroom” model at Lassonde encourages students to discover answers in small groups working collaboratively with professors and classmates. This marks a shift away from traditional lectures and textbook learning, toward a focus on problem-solving and hands-on learning. In addition, inclusivity training for professors and students will create an “identity safe” climate to allow for the full participation of everyone regardless of their gender identity.
Our co-op and internship programs will provide specialized training to help students prepare, before entering the workplace, how to confront gender bias and encourage gender inclusive policies at the companies where they work. Our goal is to create allies in men and women within the engineering profession to reduce stereotype threats that can discourage women from staying in engineering, as their profession of choice, after their education. Lastly, we will review the pathways for women into post-graduate studies and professorships to increase the role models for female students and the research
outcomes for the School.
The Lassonde School of Engineering is grateful for the leadership of the Association of Ontario Land Surveyors (AOLS) in helping us reach the goal of gender balance. In addition to the eleven financial awards that the AOLS currently provides for Lassonde students, this fall the AOLS introduced two new Women in Geomatics Engineering Entrance awards designed specifically for female high school graduates. The inaugural winners are Amelia Kishlyansky and Krystel Reyes. Now is the time for all of us to embrace this challenge. I look forward to working with the many experts and engineering schools that are also committed to this long overdue social change. Reaching 50:50 is a bold ambition and one that I am confident we will achieve, together.