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Gender diversity in engineering: A recipe for growth and retention

Author: Sophie Warwick

Elsie MacGill was the first Canadian woman to receive a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. She graduated from the University of Toronto in 1927 and went on to become the world’s first female aeronautical engineer. She was a trailblazer for women in Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) and went on to lead a team of engineers that developed the Hawker Hurricane fighter plane during World War II earning her the nickname the “Queen of Hurricanes”. Almost 100 years later there are still very few women in the engineering profession. How do we encourage more women to both pursue engineering and stay in the profession?

We need to first look at the numbers today. In Canada, only 20% of newly licensed engineers are women. Note the use of newly licensed engineers. In contrast, the percentage of women practicing engineering at all levels is even lower at just 13%. Not only is this low, it’s also not changing in any meaningful way. There is more growth academically as more women choose to pursue engineering, but this doesn’t seem to be translating to long-term retention in the profession.

One culprit for slow change is that 60% of engineering graduates – of all genders – choose to leave the profession within the first 5 years of practice, commonly referred to as “the leaky pipeline”. Although that last statistic applies to all genders, women are more than twice as likely of leaving the profession due to a range of reasons – from a lack of mentorship or visible role models to more severe safety concerns such as harassment.

A survey conducted by the Canadian Association of Women in Construction showed that 92% of women working in the construction industry (inclusive of site staff and office staff) reported harassment in the workplace. In contrast, all surveyed employers reported that harassment was not an issue, citing their workplace safety and harassment policies as sufficient. The discrepancy suggests that in some cases harassment is being treated as an acceptable risk of the job, or that victims don’t feel safe reporting incidents. Both may be a contributing factors to the mass exodus at the 5-year mark.

There is good news though – there are many ways both small and large that we can help retain more women in the profession. In the engineering world, the lack of women representation has not gone unnoticed. In 2010, Engineers Canada announced their goal to achieve 30 percent newly licensed engineers – note the newly part again – by the year 2030. We can only hope the target percentage was selected because it is indeed the tipping point for meaningful change as noted by Harvard academic Rosabeth M. Kanter’s theory and not just because it makes for a catchy title…

Engineers Canada has called on the support of Provincial Regulatory bodies, universities, and colleges across the country to implement local initiatives to help achieve their goal. Engineers and Geoscientist British Columbia (EGBC) for example relaunched their group Women in Engineering and Geoscience Division in 2018 in an effort to provide more support to women in engineering in British Columbia. They are one of many regional organizations operating across Canada that are conducting outreach and reviewing policies to improve gender balance in engineering.

But as Elsie MacGill knows best, change doesn’t happen overnight. We need an unstoppable recipe of increasing the number of young women pursuing engineering, institutional change (thank you Engineers Canada and your provincial affiliates), buy-in from the private sector, and a commitment to meaningful policy from organizations, leaders, and their staff to ensure all genders have the support needed to – wait for it – do their jobs. So, if the goal is to get more women practicing as engineers what’s the starting line?

Note: There is very little data currently on the number of non-binary practicing engineers in Canada. The introduction of more comprehensive sex and gender questions in the 2021 Canadian Census shows promise that more organizations will collect data on all gender identities. However, at this time, Engineers Canada has no formal data on the number of non-binary people registered as Engineers or Engineers-in-Training (EIT) in Canada.

Interrupt bias in early education. If you were born before 2000 you probably remember a teacher telling you not to worry if you weren’t good at math because women think more with their left brains and are less capable at math than men. Or, maybe you were a young boy who showed your art teacher your drawing full of browns, forest greens, and navy blues and were discouraged because early educators are predominantly women, who typically respond more positively to richer, brighter colours than men, who favour more subtle darker hues. Gender is everywhere and societal biases need to be confronted, discussed, and disrupted at a young age.

Support outreach initiatives that encourage more young women to pursue STEM careers. Movies like “Picture a Scientist” present how engrained gender is in our professional aspirations. Professional goals can be limited at a very young age because the media we consume assigns genders to possible career paths (think firefighters and nurses) and limits our perceived capabilities. Events like Girl Guides Canada’s Career Fair or the Vancouver Science World’s annual Girls and Steam events show young women and girls the variety of careers and educational opportunities available to them. It’s not about pushing STEM on young women, but instead presenting all the options equitably and letting individuals connect with their passions free from gender pressures on their decisions and expressions. But how to keep more women in the engineering world now that they’re sold on pursuing it (or are at least aware that it is indeed an option for them)?

Policy and institutional change are needed to support women in the workforce. Without honest belief and buy-in from the industry, gender equity in engineering is unattainable. Individual companies and organizations can implement their own initiatives, but the global impact will still be limited by a lack of representation across the profession. My most hated phrase is “the business case for {insert human rights issue}.” What I want to say is “it’s the right thing so do it”, but the people in the back are asking for the financial implications.

The Westcoast Women in Engineering Science & Technology’s book “Gender Diversity in STEM” reported that Fortune 500 companies in the top quartile of gender diversity had a 16% higher return on sales and a 26% increase in return on capital than the bottom 75%. They also found that companies with just 3 female board members have an 84% higher return on sales and a 60% higher return on capital investment than companies with less.

It’s not just that more women are needed in engineering companies – they need to be in senior levels making management and business decisions. Did someone say retention? Diversity is the kryptonite of group think. Being competitive in the market means being innovative, creative, and exploring new ideas and diversity is imperative to foster this. A room full of likeminded individuals with similar backgrounds will continue to succeed in the same ways, but they’ll also continue to make the same mistakes and are notoriously less adaptive.

Don’t forget parental leave. Canadian companies are required to provide a minimum number of weeks leave for maternity, parental, or adoption leave, but are not required to top up pay during that time. The Canadian Government offers EI up to a maximum of $595 per week – note that may not even cover rent in the top 5 most expensive Canadian cities.

A recent survey conducted by Aon found that only 33% of Canadian companies offered parental leave top ups on the base salary for employees. Male dominated professions are much less likely to provide any top ups since there were previously so few eligible candidates, given that men taking leave only recently became more common. That history promotes the “we’ll implement a leave policy when someone needs it” mentality. The lack of top ups and formal policies is another factor pushing women to leave the profession early if the financial burden of an unpaid (excluding EI) leave is not feasible for their family.

Provide regular mentorship opportunities that are accountable and intentional. Bias is the one evil we all share. Humans are notorious categorizers. It historically helped us identify threats and simplify the complex environment we live in to make effective decisions quickly. But prejudice also makes us mean, uncaring people, who can become bad mentors.

A few years ago, I found myself mentoring two young women at the same time. They were both promising engineers who I know will go on to have strong and meaningful careers. In many ways I felt I provided equitable mentorship to both women, but I’ll admit I found one much easier to talk to. We had similar interests, values, and even dressed quite similarly. She was so much easier to connect with, we were alike. It wasn’t until years later though that I recognized that I saw myself in her, her potential, and in the other woman I was seeing her capability.

A minority in a working environment is much less likely to receive the organic mentorship that you only have with those people who are wholly like you. This is because very few people at that company, or potentially no one, will be so completely like them in a company lacking diversity. Mentorship matters in development and retention. Many women are slipping through the cracks in engineering organizations. Especially in those companies without a formal mentorship program.

And we can’t forget about mentorship’s less popular, but also effective cousin, peer support. With only 13% of women practicing as engineers there’s very little opportunity within the workplace to find peer support on gendered issues. The golf tournaments and the awkwardness that sometimes exists asking a colleague of another gender to a professional social are just a few examples of missed networking and development opportunities women in engineering face daily. In any fast-paced environment, companionship, or at the very least commiseration, are lifelines for stress management and retention.

It doesn’t mean that individuals can only be work friends with those of the same gender, but we can’t ignore that we continue to live in a gendered society and that there are unique challenges to all genders. If you’re experiencing gender discrimination, would it not be more effective to reach out to someone who overcame that same experience?

Allies are powerful resources, but their listening may not be able to reach that same understanding and connection, that another person with the same lived experience can achieve. The same can be said for men’s issues in the workplace but they are much better situated to receive peer support when 87% of their colleagues are men.

Policy change, mentorship, peer support… it all comes down to the big million-dollar word, retention. Any company or organization can hire as many women as they wish, but if they can’t keep them, the numbers will never change in any meaningful way. Without retention in the organization, and the industry as a whole, there won’t be enough women in leadership positions to help advocate and encourage more women to pursue and remain in the engineering profession moving forward.

Diversity of thought is the key to any successful business. It reduces the occurrence of groupthink and empowers companies to be more innovative and adaptive to industry and market changes. The next few decades will arguably be the most challenging years humankind will face, as we collectively tackle unimaginable challenges like the climate crisis. We need the best and brightest minds developing new technologies and challenging industry norms to have a fighting chance. To do so, we need buy in and action from all genders to improve gender equity and ensure companies have access to the complete candidate pool, along with the education to support them all equally.



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