Rallying to change the ratio

Despite decades of effort to encourage more girls to consider technical careers, less than 13 per cent of practising professional engineers in Canada are women, many of whom still face questions about whether they fit in. Despite the odds, these women are more determined than ever to become part of a greater network of engineers who rally to support each other. 

While progress in the area of gender equality can feel heavy-footed, women in engineering are not only radically changing the conversation surrounding what it means to be female in a male-dominated industry, they’re changing the very language that makes up the conversation.

At different ages, stages and cultural perspectives in their careers, many women in engineering have faced discrimination and are contributing to systemic change through education, strength, initiative, innovation and palpable optimism. Reversing patterns in the culture of education, thereby encouraging more young girls to consider engineering for their future, remains a focal point for women in the industry today.

Cassondra Fonseca, P.Eng., who is in her late-20s and in the first seven years of her career, says there has been a sense of isolation since her university days, where she was one of less than a handful of women in her program. Being treated differently crossed over into her first years on the job. “I was a minority in every sense,” says Fonseca, a project engineer at Hydro One. “I was born in Canada but I’m of Indian descent, so I was a visible minority. Initially, I felt the challenge. If I was in a meeting and it was a group of men, and then just me, I would be asked to be the minute-taker, or I was assigned extra administrative tasks on top of my design work.”

The sense of intimidation and exclusion is echoed by Amma Wakefield, P.Eng., who, in her mid-30s and beginning her second decade in the field, has fought to be considered part of the male dominated team. “I don’t make it a point to have it on my mind that I’m a black female in a Caucasian male-dominated industry,” says Wakefield, manager of quality for design-build projects at Aecon Materials Engineering (Aecon Group Inc.). “However, there are things that will happen where you are sort of, ‘Oh, right, it’s because I’m a woman… I’m a black woman,’ especially in construction.”

Wakefield says she has, at times, found client-networking activities to have been male-centric, even after being promoted. “There was one company I was employed with, and they had a golf tournament every year in the middle of the summer in order to interact with clients and build a relationship with them,” explains Wakefield. “The man who was in my role prior to me went to that golf tournament every single year. The year he moved on to be project manager and I took his role, I saw the registration for the golf tournament and I thought, ‘Oh, this is great! I get to go meet new clients and make connections.’ But the golf tournament came and went. The project manager who used to go still went. It really bothered me. I finally got up the courage and went to our general manager… I had to be brave. At that point I was in his office, and I had to know what it was I had to do to get the privileges that the same person who previously held my same exact position had. My general manager didn’t have any answers for me. He stormed out of his own office. Needless to say, I never missed that golf tournament after that. I went every single year.”

Small victories like Wakefield’s are part of a system in which there haven’t been enough women employed to support the kind of discourse needed to spark change in team-building exercises. For Mary Wells, PhD, P.Eng., now in her 50s and having worked for 30 years as an engineer at various levels, a visible transformation is happening but a collective effort is still needed.

“I graduated 30 years ago,” says Wells, dean of the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences at the University of Guelph, and chair of the Ontario Network of Women in Engineering (ONWiE). “At the time, I was a teenager; there was really no outreach. There was a very low percentage of women who were studying engineering. There was around 13 per cent of women who were graduating in engineering. In the profession itself, it was about three per cent women. There were not a lot of role models. When I graduated I worked in the steel industry—so, again, very few women at the time. I felt like a bit of an anomaly. They didn’t really know what to expect. They had very little exposure to technical women who would be working alongside them. I would say I was a curiosity. They would very quickly look at me as almost a daughter. They would say to me, ‘Oh, let me help you carry that.’”

Over time, all three women say they’ve learned to alter their behaviour in accordance with their environment. “Rotating through different areas allowed me to analyze the situation,” explains Fonseca. “I would treat a field environment differently than a head office environment. Understanding different people, different backgrounds, different [male employees], I learned how to modify my personality. Being female, and being onsite, I notice that you’re treated differently. Men tend to listen to each other. You really have to prove yourself before they listen to you. Once you can prove to them that you know what you’re talking about—that you’re technically sound—then they have more of an open ear.”

Fonseca, Wakefield and Wells all suggest that learning how to trade an emotional response for a practical application in problem solving is part of surviving. Additionally, Wakefield stresses the importance of including men who are supportive and empowering of women.

“I have had the opportunity to meet brilliant men who have a different level of intelligence,” Wakefield says. “Those are the ones I lean on for guidance.”

“When you’re a young person, you adapt to the environment to fit in,” adds Wells. “There were definitely things going on that, at first, seemed very strange to me. In my limited view of what it meant to be an engineer I felt this was part of it. So, you were forever changed by those experiences. Years later, when other women have said, ‘That’s horrible [men] said these things to you,’ I say, ‘Well, it’s not that bad.’ I had changed and adapted because I had survived the system. You lose your own perspective.”


Remarkably, all three women are part of a greater network of engineers who are rallying to support each other. Whether involved in groups within their respective companies—Fonseca even created a group with a colleague at Hydro One to fill a gap for women there—or becoming involved in larger efforts like ONWiE, female employees are teaching each other how to not simply survive a male-dominated system but how to evolve and reshape the system itself.

“It’s about communication,” explains Fonseca, who supported a female colleague in creating the Women in Trades Technology and Engineering Network at Hydro One. “Have some notes. Have a clear indication of what you want to say. And if you don’t know, don’t be afraid to say that you don’t know. I was always afraid to say that. I read a [Hewlett Packard internal study, which was referenced by Forbes and by Harvard Business Review] that said that if females don’t know 100 per cent of the qualifications of what they’re interviewing for, they won’t apply, whereas men will apply if they have 60 per cent to 80 per cent knowledge. Also, if you know you’re right, you have to speak up. You might have to cut people off sometimes. Women might be apologetic. We might think, ‘He’s male. He’s been here for 20 years. I’m afraid to give my opinion on this technical matter.’”

Showing encouragement to other women outside of the office is also essential to making progress. “Whenever I’ve met any female engineer—at my level, or younger or older—it’s always been very positive,” adds Wakefield, who also takes part in seminars and accesses resources through the Canadian Association of Women in Construction. “And we all talk about these same issues.”

Perhaps most effective is the application of outreach programs through ONWiE that has steadily come into play since its founding in 2005. The network’s first national outreach program, Go ENG Girl, was awarded the 2016 Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada Awards for Science Promotion. And the award comes none too soon, as the most recent statistics from the National Council of Deans of Engineering and Applied Science annual resources survey, as well as the enrolment reports prepared by Engineers Canada, indicate that the percentage of women studying engineering in accredited programs across Canada hovers at between 19 and 20 per cent. This percentage did not increase significantly between 2001 and 2015.

“About 12 years ago, all of the faculties of applied science and engineering in Ontario got together, put their competitions aside and [wanted to make changes] for diversity in engineering and women in engineering,” explains Wells. “That was a huge deal at the time, for them to come together like that. Nobody else was really doing it. Out of that came Go ENG Girl. The elements that have made Go ENG Girl so successful are, firstly, that all the schools and faculties of applied sciences across Ontario and across Canada are offering it. Secondly, it engages not only the girls at a critical time in their lives—grades 7 to 10 as they’re entering high school and starting to make decisions about courses that will allow them to apply to engineering—but it also engages the parents. The third aspect is that we bring them into the universities so they get to meet role models—young women engineers who aren’t that much older than them who are doing amazing things. It’s a kind of peer mentoring. A young girl might say, ‘Wow, she’s really great. I want to be like her.’”


The precedent set by ONWiE and Go ENG Girl targets the crucial element needed to achieve gender equality across the industry as a whole—understanding the psychology of children as they approach ideas and problem solving at a young age. The idea that girls are not good at math or science, or that girls should be afraid of these subjects, has been the impetus for a new series of projects for which Wells is a founding team member. Engendering Success in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) is a national research consortium that aims to change both male and female mindsets at different points in an education system and workplace that suggest girls are not good at STEM, but boys are considered good at coding or problem solving.

“What really excites me is the partnership with the social psychologists,” says Wells. “We can’t do it by ourselves. [In the school system] there can be lot of subtle or overt criticism, to the point where girls start to doubt themselves.”

In seeking to reverse this, the STEM team members will launch projects to foster innovation and create gender equality. To reverse what they describe as a “think science, think male” belief, they will conduct research to test “the long-term efficacy of interventions that harness the power of positive social interactions to mitigate subtle gender bias.” They hope to combat cultural biases that exclude girls from education paths that could lead them to success and fulfilment in STEM careers.

“I am part of it as a STEM expert but it is the partnership between social science researchers and engineering professionals that is very exciting,” explains Wells. “This will be a game changer.”

Last August, the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers (OSPE) received funding of $385,000 from the Status of Women Canada for its 36-month-long project, Canada 150 STEM Challenge, which also addresses systemic barriers for women choosing STEM careers. OSPE, PEO, the Ontario Association of Certified Engineering Technicians and Technologists and other partners are working with students, schools, employers, governments, parents and stakeholders to develop strategies to remove systemic barriers using online tools designed to support women and girls, and create and promote workplace and government policy recommendations.

Similarly, Engineers Canada is leading a “30 by 30” initiative, which has a goal of raising the percentage of newly licensed engineers who are women to 30 per cent by the year 2030—since 30 per cent is considered the tipping point for sustainable change. Currently in Ontario, only 15 per cent of newly licensed engineers are female. The initiative has received national support from across all provinces and territories, including PEO and OSPE.

Given that so many of these new projects are still in their infancy, local efforts by women within their companies are still of huge importance. ONWiE, in seeking to inform employers of how to change gender-bias language in the workplace, offers extensive resources on their website to guide work environments towards inclusive, non-biased communication (www.onwie.ca/resources-tools/gender-diversity-101). Fonseca and Wakefield are both concentrating their efforts on supporting young women at work and showing them how engineering can be applied in activities they might not have considered. Fonseca has laid the ground work for a spring camp for girls to engage in outdoor activities that involve feats of engineering.

Girls aren’t initially interested until we do hands-on activities,” explains Fonseca. “If you don’t like math when you’re younger, you just don’t like math and science. You have a skewed perception of math and science. I try to teach them that an engineer is not just math, science and physics. It’s also a dancer, a soccer player, someone who’s involved in the community who has fun, someone who’s not a male in an engineering outfit with a hard hat. I try to shine a positive light… I don’t want young girls to feel cheated.”