Is our profession doing enough?

For over 30 years, many women engineers and a few male allies have tried to resolve the chronic underrepresentation of women in the engineering profession. Sadly, female P.Engs currently represent only 11 per cent of all PEO licence holders. Is our profession doing enough?

After reading the January/February issue of Engineering Dimensions, I was compelled to put my thoughts together on how we might look at this problem differently because other professions, such as medicine and law, have reached gender parity. If we struggle to increase the number of women engineers, how do we hope to address deeper challenges of equity, diversity and inclusion so engineers can become truly reflective of the society we serve?

Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and thought leader in organizational psychology, uses the term “disagreeable givers” to describe people who are gruff, perhaps offensive or perceived as “negative Nellys” but underneath have others’ best interests at heart. According to Grant, disagreeable givers are the most undervalued people in our organizations because they are the ones who give critical feedback that no one wants to hear but everyone needs to hear. In the context of the engineering profession, many women engineers, including myself, show up as disagreeable givers.

Increasing the number of newly licensed women engineers is the goal of Engineers Canada’s 30 by 30 initiative. It is not about getting more women in engineering undergraduate programs or kids excited about science. Supply is not the issue; just get women engineering graduates, domestic and international, licensed. The 30 by 30 initiative is public recognition that the underrepresentation of women in our profession must be addressed and all engineers need to own it—both men and women.

While women meeting to share their stories provides support to continue the battle, if it is simply to rehash symptoms, this is not enough. Society would not hang the problem of poverty on the backs of the poor to resolve, so I am curious: Why, as a profession, do we constantly hang this problem on the women to resolve? “Women in ‘Whatever’” groups have not yet achieved the full parity we are aiming for despite tremendous efforts by these groups. Isn’t it the definition of insanity to do the same thing and expect different results? Men must be engaged because it is the male engineers and business leaders who are in greater positions to influence change, since women only make up 11 per cent of the profession.

If this was an easy problem to solve, it would have been, but it is a complex problem. “A ray of light in the effort to become an inclusive profession,” when there are 20 per cent female engineering students is a far cry from a truly representative profession. This is not a ray of light. As an engineering profession we are still in the dark at 11 per cent women. As an engineering undergrad at Queen’s University in the 1980s, 27 per cent female enrollment was celebrated, and Ryerson reached 25 per cent female enrollment a few years later. Why are we celebrating a decrease to 20 per cent female enrollment almost 30 years later?

After years of effort, many experienced women engineers are tired—exhausted, frankly. This can lead to us being perceived as “disagreeable” when, in fact, it’s our passion for our profession and our commitment to serve the public interest that causes us to show up this way. Why do we teach women to “navigate a glass obstacle course”? This places an obligation on women engineers to navigate a difficult system. Are all engineers required to navigate an obstacle course? Why would we place an additional burden on some valued minds? A more effective approach would be to change the system.

In 2000, “harassment” was added to our Professional Engineers Act and is now included as part of professional misconduct. This took 10 years of tremendous effort. In light of the current #MeToo movement, it’s an example of PEO Council being proactive and ahead of its time. This change was led by Nancy Hill, P.Eng., LLB, FEC, and Peter Hiscocks P.Eng., with help from Karen Webb, P.Eng., and Helen Wojcinski, P.Eng., FEC, working behind the scenes, which went largely unnoticed. These engineers deserve to be celebrated.

In September 2017, PEO officially endorsed the Engineers Canada 30 by 30 initiative due to the efforts of a group of committed engineering leaders. While late, PEO joined the other provincial regulators in their commitment to become a more equitable and inclusive profession. Actions are needed to make true and lasting change—personal actions and leadership that is embodied by Helen Wojcinski. Helen, with the support of others, will continue to take action to make 30 by 30 a reality in our profession.

I don’t have all the answers but, as an entire profession, we must start having conversations about this elephant in the room and stop skirting the issue (pardon the pun!). Engineers must demand environments free of bias. Only when we stop accepting things like the glass obstacle course can our profession be inclusive of all talent and successfully pull from society’s entire talent pool because it is in the public interest—and besides, men want it, too.


Marilyn Spink, P.Eng., is a PEO and Ontario Society of Professional Engineers member, and a lieutenant governor-in-council appointee on PEO Council.

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