Engineering: no longer an old boys' club

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Women in Engineering executive in a pyramid shape

Joyce Wang

WE SCHOOL THE EGYPTIANS ON PYRAMID BUILDING. The Women in Engineering executive shows teamwork on Concrete Beach.

Despite low enrolment rates relative to their male colleagues, Western’s female engineering students are driven to succeed and don’t feel held back in a field often described as an old boys’ club.

Of all Western faculties, engineering has the lowest female-to-male enrolment ratio. As of last year, there were 236 female undergraduate engineering students versus 1,100 male students. At the graduate level, there are under 40 females in an engineering master’s program versus 147 males.

Corinna Bellomo, a fourth-year mechanical engineering student and VP-social of Western’s Women in Engineering chapter, was once told by a high school teacher to “rethink” becoming an engineer because she’s female.

Highschool outreach initiative Go Eng Girl is a program geared to combating such viewpoints. Go Eng Girl, a hands-on information event for female students in Grades 7 to 10, exposes girls to positive female role models, hands-on projects and other opportunities for aspiring engineers.

“We have the girls make ice cream or build a fort out of paper to show them [what engineering] has to do with everyday life,” says WIE co-president Savitri Samaroo.

Despite such initiatives, discrimination still occurs.

“Two people that just came back from an internship were saying they always have coworkers say really inappropriate things to them because they’re in a minority, [with] two girls to 22 guys,” Samaroo says. “They get kind of heckled… some girls don’t want to work around that every day.”

Some female engineers say they’ve learned to laugh off the occasional sexism.

“The only sexist comments you hear are jokes and not hurtful at all...we’re used to those,” says Alex Burnet, a first-year engineering student. “Hey, sometimes they’re pretty funny.”

“No one has been disrespectful or condescending to me because of my gender,” says first-year engineering student Helen Brennek. “The guys in my classes aren’t rude or ignorant, and I can honestly say chauvinism hasn’t been an issue for me.

“In the modern case of engineering, guys aren’t holding girls back " girls are.”

First-year engineering student Erin DeVeber is frustrated some people feel they must compensate for the lack of women in certain fields. She says equality of numbers isn’t the real issue " it’s equality of opportunity.

“It makes me angry when some women look at the percentage of men in fields like engineering, math and politics and try to prove something as if we’re oppressed,” DeVeber says. “The gender division... may never be 50/50, but the opportunity is there and that is what women spent so many years fighting for.”

DeVeber says affirmative action-type programs geared at increasing female employment in professions like engineering can actually fuel animosity between men and women.

“Imposing quotas undermines everything that real feminists sought to establish,” DeVeber says. “It allows under-qualified women to enter into positions of power or responsibility just to balance the numbers, which inevitably leads to the stereotyping of women as less capable than their male coworkers.”

Burnet agrees engineering is perceived as a “guy thing,” and encouragement for women is more important than imposing quotas.

“I believe that women have endless opportunities to pursue whatever fields they want to,” Burnet says. “There are no barriers to entry. Just work hard and don’t expect any favours.

“If you don’t want to be treated differently, then don’t ask to be.”

All in all, Burnet and DeVeber say they are comfortable being a minority and don’t want their gender to affect their success through either discrimination or preferential treatment.

They say men and women can contribute different skills to engineering and these skills, rather than gender, should determine someone’s success.

"with files from Steph Savage

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