University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine
Winter 2009

Women Wanted

Engineering faculty hopes mentorship, new image will reverse slide in female enrolment

Something peculiar happened this decade on the long road to gender parity in the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering. While female students now outnumber men in law and medicine – two other traditionally male-dominated fields – their presence in engineering has waned. After hitting a high of 27 per cent in 2001, the proportion of female engineering students has dropped every year, to just 21 per cent in 2007. This year it rose slightly, to 23 per cent.

Professors and administrators aren’t exactly sure what caused the decline, but they do know the phenomenon is not confi ned to U of T. “[Female enrolment in engineering] seemed to plateau across North America,” says Professor Susan McCahan, a mechanical engineer who serves as the faculty’s First Year Chair. According to the Canadian Coalition of Women in Engineering, Science, Trades and Technology, the proportion of women enrolled in Canadian engineering programs has been declining steadily since 2002, after nearly a decade of slowly increasing numbers.

McCahan suspects the field may have an image problem – despite efforts to fight the stereotype of engineers as “supernerds” who work “for companies rather than people and the public good.”

The faculty is attempting to redefine engineering as a helping profession in which technical experts work with communities and tailor their efforts to local needs. “Research has shown that female students are interested in professions that have a positive effect on human life,” says Cristina Amon, the first female dean in the faculty’s 135-year history. She notes that certain disciplines – including chemical and environ mental engineering as well as biomedical engineering – are popular with female students because advances in these fields have a direct bearing on today’s pressing issues, such as the worldwide energy dilemma.

Female engineering students are more likely to choose environmental and biomedical disciplines because they believe advances in these fields have a direct impact on today’s pressing issues
Female engineering students are more likely to choose environmental and biomedical disciplines because they believe advances in these fields have a direct impact on today’s pressing issues
Cultural factors likely play a role in how women perceive engineering. Amon (whose daughter is also an engineer) hails from Uruguay, where the idea of engineering as a woman’s profession is more broadly accepted than it is here. This is also true in Russia and China. “The professions that are considered appropriate for women are very deeply rooted in culture,” says McCahan.

Recently, U of T’s Faculty of Applied Science embarked on a number of initiatives to attract female students. Mentorship is key, so U of T is hiring more women as professors. “In the last two years, over 50 per cent of our new hires have been female,” says McCahan. The Skule Sisters program sees high school girls corresponding with female engineering students, who help them plan for a career in the field. U of T also participates in the province’s yearly GoEngGirl Fair, which gives 12- to 15-year-old girls the opportunity to create machines, such as robotic arms and wind turbines.

Encouraged by this year’s increase in female enrolment, Amon and McCahan would like to see women engineers eventually take more positions in the workforce. Today, only about 10 per cent of professional engineers in Canada are women. However, McCahan says engineering can also take students into law, medicine or business. “The skills you get open up wildly diverse career opportunities.”

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