Navigating the glass obstacle course

“Gender equality is not a women’s issue; it is a human issue. It affects us all.”—Malala Yousafzai

At PEO’s 2017 Annual General Meeting (AGM) in Thunder Bay, Ontario, I mentioned Engineers Canada’s “30 by 30” initiative. It is the goal of raising the percentage of newly licensed engineers who are women to 30 per cent by the year 2030. Why 30 per cent? It is widely seen as a critical mass, a threshold for self-sustaining change. This is not a plan for increasing the percentage of women by decreasing the number of men—a comment I unfortunately hear even now. It is an initiative to identify and work towards reducing the barriers that have contributed to the lower numbers of women entering the profession and obtaining their licence—the glass obstacle course, as some have called it. The goal is to simply increase the number of women entering the profession by this critical amount.

Since its launch in 2011, all the provincial and territorial engineering regulators across the country have signed onto the 30 by 30 goal except—until recently—PEO. I am happy to say that at the September 2017 Council meeting PEO stepped up and endorsed the plan. As president of PEO, I was pleased to move the motion that “Council formally endorses Engineers Canada’s 30 by 30 initiative” and works with the Ontario  Society of Professional Engineers (OSPE), the Ontario champion of the initiative, to develop a joint action plan to move forward.

Now, the delay in PEO signing onto the initiative was, in some respect, understandable. Unlike other jurisdictions, we have a separate advocacy organization, OSPE. When OSPE was created, as part of the transfer of non-regulatory programs from PEO to OSPE, the programs of the Women in Engineering Advisory Committee (WEAC) were transferred to OSPE. So, when the 30 by 30 initiative was announced, it was natural that OSPE signed on as the Ontario champion. 

However, it is only appropriate that PEO also sign on. The initiative is both an advocacy and a regulatory issue because it also involves the licensing of engineers—more specifically, addressing the chronic underrepresentation of women in the profession. Currently, only 13 per cent of professional engineers in Canada and 15 per cent of newly licensed engineers in Ontario are women. Other professions, such as law, medicine and business, have already achieved, or are making greater strides, in gender parity. Given that women make up over 50 per cent of the population, reaching gender parity and tapping into the full talent pool is in the public interest. Assuming responsibility for this initiative, where appropriate, falls well within PEO’s regulatory mandate. How can the public, on whose behalf we regulate the profession of engineering, have the fullest of confidence in us as a self-regulator if we are not reflective of that same society?

Council has committed to working with OSPE to create a joint action plan, to augment the work that OSPE has already undertaken. Engineers Canada has published a list of best practices on its website (www.engineerscanada.ca/diversity/women-in-engineering/30-by-30), many of which are already in place. PEO already has a very active Equity and Diversity Committee, whose mandate is to work towards integrating “equity and diversity values and principles into the general policy and business operations of PEO” and OSPE, as mentioned, has WEAC, whose goal is “to work toward the creation of a more progressive and diverse engineering profession by encouraging the full participation of women in the profession.” We already track many gender-based statistics that we share nationally. And our new 2018-2020 Strategic Plan includes an objective to “create a seamless transition from student member to EIT to licence holder,” where we can examine the uptake of women to the profession through these stages leading to licensure. 

Many universities have already taken the lead. The two largest engineering schools in the province, the University of Waterloo and the University of Toronto, have women making up 30 per cent and 40 per cent of their first-year class, respectively. Is it a coincidence that both their engineering deans are women?

Obviously, there is still much work to be done. I also think most of us acknowledge that this must be but one part of a larger plan to address issues of equity, diversity and inclusion within our profession.

AVOIDING UNCONSCIOUS BIAS

At the AGM, I asked: “Can we at PEO take a leadership role and exceed this [30 by 30] goal for our own leadership?” Internally, within PEO, are we doing a good enough job to be reflective of, not just the profession, but society as a whole? There have been many times at PEO when I’ve looked around the room and wondered why there aren’t more women at the table—and there are numerous reasons why there may be an underrepresentation of women, both explicit and unconscious. 

As noted in one of the feature articles in this issue, the Ontario Network of Women in Engineering (ONWiE) has many resources on their website explaining such gender equality issues (www.onwie.ca/resources-tools): Is language use inclusive? Are individuals concerned about being viewed through the lens of a stereotype? Are cultural references broad and inclusive? Any one of these issues in and of itself may not be a significant impediment but taken together may lead to an atmosphere where one feels they don’t belong. I also recommend our own equity and diversity online learning module, “Engineers Make a Difference for Equity and Diversity,” accessed through PEO’s online learning module library at www.peo.on.ca/index.php/ci_id/30268/la_id/1.htm.

One very subtle but potentially impactful impediment is unconscious bias. This is where, without thinking, we make conclusions and assumptions that can affect our view of an individual. We do this regularly without much thought, and many times it may be quite benign. I have to confess that my most embarrassing example of this happened a few years ago. I received an email from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers with the heading “With the Arduino, Now Even Your Mom Can Program” with a reference to an IEEE Spectrum magazine article titled “The Making of Arduino.” I fell right into the bias trap. I immediately pictured my mother-in-law—my wife and I have spent countless hours helping her with her computer—and smiled. Later that day another email arrived from the editor-in-chief of the IEEE Spectrum herself, Susan Hassler, apologizing for the first email, saying, “I’m an IEEE member, and a mom, and the headline was inexcusable, a lazy, sexist cliché that should have never seen the light of day.” And then I thought of my daughter, who is now an engineering intern. How would she have reacted to that email, given that her mom—my wife—has had a very successful career in software development as a computer science graduate from the University of Waterloo?

AN OPTIMISTIC FUTURE

Catherine Karakatsanis, P.Eng., FEC, chief operating officer of Morrison Hershfield Group Inc., former PEO president (2009 to 2010) and 2017 Ontario Professional Engineers Awards Gold Medal winner, spoke of the problems facing women in engineering so eloquently during her remarks on November 18, 2017, when she accepted her gold medal:

“Attracting and retaining women in engineering is of great importance to me and I’m very concerned about the gender imbalance. As many studies have shown, having a balance between the number of men and women in organizations leads to superior innovation and financial performance. So, inclusivity is good business. Yet, respected studies have shown that 50 per cent of women are driven out of companies and the field altogether, due in no small part to a culture that is not always as accepting as it could be or should be. 

“The best way to change this is, first, to acknowledge that these cultural challenges exist and talk about them openly and candidly. It’s only by talking about these issues that firms can begin to do what is necessary to address them. 

“And we have to do our part to meet that audacious 30 by 30 goal set by our national body, Engineers Canada, and adopted by all the associations across the country… Now this is a complex problem and achieving 30 by 30 will be a challenge. But I know we can do this. After all, we’re engineers and we solve complex problems every day. 

“In the meantime, I am very optimistic regarding the future for women in engineering. Though women are underrepresented, Canadian engineers have not hesitated to have women lead their professional organizations. Women in Canadian engineering have the opportunity to assume a larger role within the industry and to become leaders in the field. And this is a great credit to us all.”

I, too, share Catherine’s optimism. As a university professor and father of three budding engineers, I am encouraged to see how this new generation takes the problems of increasing equity, diversity and inclusion to heart. They seem to understand naturally that the more diverse and inclusive an organization is, the healthier it is. As the profession renews itself through bringing in the new generation of practitioners into leadership roles, aided by Council’s term limits and succession-planning initiatives, with its diverse views and demographics, I’m confident our profession will eventually be truly reflective of the society on whose behalf we regulate the engineering profession.

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