International Women in Engineering Day reminds us of work still ahead

June 23 was International Women in Engineering Day, a worldwide awareness campaign to raise the profile of women in engineering and celebrate the achievements of women engineers throughout the world. The day first launched as National Women in Engineering Day in 2014 by the United Kingdom Women’s Engineering Society, and in 2017 it became an international event for the first time due to the interest and enthusiasm of international participants. This year, participants from all over the world hosted events to raise awareness of women engineers, including PEO’s York Chapter.

According to Engineers Canada, only 13 per cent of engineers across Canada and 11 per cent in Ontario are women. Other regulated professions, by comparison, have already reached gender parity: The Canadian Medical Association, for example, reported that 42 per cent of doctors across Canada and 41 per cent in Ontario are women.

But there is hope: Engineering schools, as a start, are actively campaigning to attract women students. York University’s Lassonde School of Engineering is spending over a million dollars to achieve gender parity, and the University of Toronto’s faculty of applied science and engineering has the highest proportion among Ontario universities of female first-year students in its engineering programs. In a statement to Engineering Dimensions, Cristina Amon, P.Eng., dean of the University of Toronto’s faculty of applied science and engineering, said: “For the past two consecutive years, we have welcomed more than 40 per cent women in our incoming engineering undergraduate class, and we are on track to achieve an even higher percentage in September 2018.” Noting that Governor General Julie Payette, ing., is a University of Toronto engineering grad, Amon praised the faculty’s effective recruitment and admission processes, stating “gender diversity is our growing strength: it enriches the student experience and deepens the engineering creative process.”

It is a sentiment Helen Wojcinski, P.Eng., FEC, chair of PEO’s 30 by 30 Task Force, would agree with. “When I was starting off 30 years ago, I felt isolated. When you’re the only woman in the room, it can be daunting.” The 30 by 30 initiative, led by Engineers Canada, aims to have women make up at least 30 per cent of newly licensed engineers by 2030. “Thirty per cent is a critical mass so women don’t feel like an outcast. It is also a widely accepted threshold for self-sustaining change.”

Engineers Canada asserts it has support in every province and territory, with most engineering regulators and other stakeholders either adopting the 30 by 30 principles or carrying out plans. “We can no longer rely on a small group of women to address this inequality,” Wojcinski says, noting it is not just women who need to participate to affect change. In fact, Wojcinski, notes, it was because of PEO Past President Bob Dony’s strong support in his former role as president that PEO Council adopted the 30 by 30 initiative in September 2017. “The entire profession needs to own it, and men have changed [with the times],” Wojcinski notes, stating that the engineering profession is no longer an old boys’ club. 

Wojcinski, who is also an organizational behavioural expert, will bring her change management expertise to the task force to increase women’s numbers in engineering. The task force’s action plan will be presented to PEO Council this month and will address organizational changes, including encouraging companies to develop programs to recruit women engineering graduates, facilitate their pathway to licensure and retain them in the profession. “It’s the whole engineering profession [that needs to adapt],” she notes. “Are [women] getting their licences? How do we get them 
to stay in?”

Wojcinski is hopeful, though. Although older, experienced engineers may be leading the way for more women in engineering, it is the up-and-coming generation of engineers that is more embracive of gender representation. “The next generation of women and men want to be mentored to take on a leadership role. People with experience need to pass on the baton.”