A wave of the future?
It has been a quarter century since Jennifer Howard-Grenville, Sc’90, arrived on the campus as a young, female engineering student with an insatiable curiosity about science and the environment. Even though she eventually followed a career that detoured from pure engineering, even in the ’90s Howard-Grenville was a groundbreaking woman in a field that was once monopolized by men.
The landscape in the fields of engineering and applied science has seen something akin to a seismic shift over the last four decades. What was once very much a male-dominated field has opened its doors to young women in the classroom and to more and more female graduates in the professional work force. But it’s a complicated picture.
The number of women in engineering schools rose from almost nothing in the 1960s to a growing trickle through the 1970s and 1980s, and to healthy numbers in the late 1990s, spurred on by government programs and cultural shifts, amplified after the tragic 1989 massacre at Montreal’s l’École Polytechnique. Since 2001, however, at most Canadian universities, the female share of undergraduate enrolments in engineering has taken a sharp u-turn, down to a level closer to where it was in the early 1990s.
Currently, fewer than 20 per cent of undergraduate engineering students in Canada are women. There was no apparent revival of inaccurate stereotypes, generally speaking, so speculation is that economic hard times and a lack of a visible connection between engineering and helping people (which appeals to many women) may explain the decline.
Whatever its cause, Queen’s is an exception to the trend. In 2010, first-year enrolment of women in the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science was at a record 28 per cent. That’s up slightly from 25 per cent in 2009 and 23 per cent in 2008. The numbers at Queen’s are heading in the right direction, showing one of the strongest female enrolments in any major engineering program in the country. After Arts and Science, the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science is the University’s largest, with about 100 faculty members, 1,800 undergraduate students, and more than 400 graduate students from around the world.
What has been the history of women in engineering – in particular at Queen’s University – and what is the school doing right that makes it a natural fit for young, aspiring female engineers?
When Jen Howard stepped into Orientation Week in the fall of 1986, she needed only look around to know she was one of very few women studying in what then was known as the Faculty of Applied Science.
“There weren’t that many women engineers, so we all got to know each other,” she says, remembering how she felt like “a bit of a novelty” in class.
Imagine how Lynn Vidal [now Larson] and Margaret Murtha [now Blance] must have felt 33 years earlier, looking at each other and each the only other woman in Sc’57 classes and labs. Occasionally, after WWII and into the 1950s, a lone woman would venture to register for engineering, but likely would have dropped out before Convocation. Perhaps it was grades. Perhaps it was prejudices, but the names of those pioneers are not easy to discover.
In the late ’80s, the numbers bear out what Jennifer Howard says. In 1986, she was a class novelty. When she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in engineering physics in 1990 she was on the cusp of a growing trend. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, the numbers of women enrolling in and graduating from engineering programs at Canadian universities was growing rapidly. Nationally, the proportion of them peaked at almost 21 per cent in the year 2001, before beginning to decline. In particular, women were attracted to chemical, bio-systems, environmental, and geological engineering. Currently, at Queen’s, most of the years in the geological engineering program have more female than male students, and the field of chemical engineering is seeing so many female faces in the classroom that it is jokingly referred to as “fem eng.”
Howard had big plans and a love of learning that eventually took her to Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, then on to MIT for a doctoral degree in Technology, Management, and Policy – a program that has been dubbed “engineering with a difference.” But it was at Queen’s that her early passion for engineering was nurtured and grew.
No one has a better grasp of the history of women in engineering at Queen’s than does Prof. Emeritus W. George Richardson, Arts’57, the Faculty’s resident historian, author of the 1993 book Queen’s Engineers: A Century of Applied Science, 1893-1993, and developer the of the country’s very first courses on the history of engineering.
“I taught at Queen’s from 1965 to 1996, and it was quite a time of change, and very interesting to watch,” he says. “The first few women were accepted by some of the other students; most of the resistance came from the faculty. Initially, the female students were few in number. They were shy, and they didn’t get a lot of encouragement. It was hard for them.”
The Women’s Liberation movement sweeping North America in the ’70s didn’t have the applied sciences among its early priorities. The common attitude was that as women, they would not be able to understand the concepts of mathematics and physics. There existed a myriad of social and cultural barriers, subtle and not so subtle, but all serving to discourage a young female would-be engineer. But there began to be side-effects of Women’s Lib.
“Gradually the number of female engineering students increased. They were enthusiastic about non-academic roles, such as working on the solar car project or serving as Engineering Society (EngSoc) volunteers, and they developed a reputation as really good all-round students. The guys accepted them because they excelled,” notes Richardson, adding that some of his best students over the years were women.
By the early 1990s, female engineering students at Queen’s had reached a position where they were considered equals by both male students and faculty members. That’s the consensus on the situation today.
"...they said engineering was no place for women."
For Dr. Jean Hutchinson it was that love of math and science – together with a very supportive family – that spurred her to pursue studies in the field of geological engineering. Recently named a fellow of the Engineering Institute of Canada, the current Head of the Department of Geological Sciences and Geological Engineering remembers her own undergrad years in the early 1980s.“When I was at U of T, a first-year engineering class would have hundreds of students, and only five or six of them would be women. In some of my classes, I was the only woman.”
Hutchinson wasn’t easily discouraged. Her father was a professor of Civil Engineering at the U of Waterloo and a major factor in her decision to consider studies in the field.“He encouraged me, very much so,” she recalls. “He said if anyone was interested in math and science, this was a great career for them. Everyone else around me thought I was crazy.”
“In those days fewer than five per cent of the students in undergraduate engineering programs were female. With my father’s encouragement, I had to go against the advice of all of my high school counselors and many of my friends; they said engineering was no place for women.”
And that was certainly one of the main struggles in breaking the invisible gender barrier that cloaked any career in engineering. It seems that most of the young women who decided to take the plunge into the field – both in the early days and in more recent days – had the enthusiastic support of family and, in some cases, guidance counselors and high school teachers.
For Victoria Pleavin, Sc’11, a computer engineering major who was the 2010-2011 President of EngSoc (just the fourth female president in the organization’s 115-year history), it was family that provided unwavering support.
“My dad is an engineer, as was my grandfather,” she says. “I’ve always enjoyed math and science, and it was my mom who encouraged me to do some testing for aptitudes and interests. She was a big force in why I chose this route.”
For Victoria’s classmate Jenn Day, Sc’11, who this spring completed a dual degree in Geological Engineering and Music (and this fall will begin work on a Master’s degree in her field of engineering here at Queen’s), it was the support of an on-the-ball guidance counselor, a positive outlook, and the support of her family that clinched the deal for her.
“My guidance counselors were quite upfront: ‘You like science and math, so why not study engineering?’” she says. “I went to an all-girl high school where I was empowered with a ‘Women-Can-Do-Everything’ mindset. We were taught to be aware of the challenges for women, but also that we could power through and be whatever we wanted to be.” (Very often, what they want to be are professors of engineering. Until women get into university programs, few of them realize that they have the choice of pursuing engineering in the academy as well as the field.)
Once Day had decided on engineering, Queen’s was the clear choice for her. She was drawn by the general first-year program (in which all engineering students take a common curriculum before choosing a specialty) and by the opportunity to do a dual degree. Her parents knew what their daughter wanted in life, and they backed her 100 per cent. That was important.
Jean Hutchinson understands that well. Thirty years after she entered university to study engineering, she is seeing the importance of family support – like the kind she had herself back in the ’80s– albeit from a different perspective: that of professor and department head.
“If I look at the students I teach and mentor now, I’m dealing with these young women after they’ve made the decision to be in engineering. Many of them have the full support of their families. I haven’t heard any of them talk about others questioning their career choice. And I haven’t heard anyone in years say that engineering isn’t a viable career choice for women.
“And we’re seeing changes in the field. I take my fourth-year class to Kidd Creek Mine as part of a field course. Over the years the mine has been buying ever larger numbers of smaller-sized underground boots for the increasing number of women in the class.”
“You can’t underestimate the importance of a positive role model.”
One big change over the last few decades, one that has certainly influenced many young women in their choice of studies, is the growing visibility of role models and mentors in both academic and work settings. It’s inevitable that as the numbers increase in the classroom and the field, the profession will continue to become more welcoming to women.
Queen’s is unique in that it has women in two of the highest profile roles within the Faculty. Dr. Kimberly Woodhouse is the Dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science and Dr. Lynann Clapham is the Associate Dean (Academic). It’s clear that multiple female role models are important to send the message there are alternative ways to be a woman in science. In addition, mentors can provide personal perspectives and information about careers.
“Queen’s has a strong role of mentoring and that certainly helps,” says Woodhouse. “You can’t underestimate the importance of a positive role model.”Clapham agrees. “It’s important that students see women in positions like Dean, Associate Dean and Department Head.”
Even as an undergraduate, Jennifer Howard-Grenville recognized the importance of mentoring and positive role models in fostering interest that young girls might have in the sciences. In 1988, she and a female classmate started Science Quest, a non-profit, student-run science camp for kids that’s been operating every summer since it was established and is still popular with girls and boys alike.
“In Science Quest we were adamant that we’d hire women as instructors specifically because of the importance of role modeling,” Howard-Grenville recalls. “I was curious about whether we could engage kids in science, and to some degree we were thinking about girls specifically.”
In her role as Associate Dean, Lynann Clapham is responsible for admissions and recruitment. She believes that the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science is particularly attractive and welcoming to women, and that accounts for the continued strong showing in enrolment numbers.
“We haven’t really changed what we are doing – graduating first-class engineers with skills that help them hit the ground running when they get out into the workplace. But what we have done over the last few years is get the message out about the unique aspects of our programs. We redesigned our brochure material and website, started a program where first-year students (two female and one male) are video blogging for us, and we revamped our promotional material, really pushing the collaboration, communication, and creative aspects of our program. It focuses a lot more on collaboration rather than competition.”
According to Clapham that collaborative spirit and approach appeals to many young women.
Kim Woodhouse agrees. “There’s a collaborative spirit in Queen’s engineering. We’re doing more to advertise the strengths of Queen’s that naturally appeal to all students, including women. We’re building on strengths that were always there.”
As Dean of the Faculty, Woodhouse is taking the long view. “We want to continue to be one of the top faculties in Canada offering traditional programs. The challenge is that the perception of being an engineer is the same as it was 30 years ago, yet major changes have taken place, including such new areas of focus as nano-technology, bio-mechanical engineering, sustainable energy, and environmental engineering. Women are attracted into certain disciplines, and we offer those disciplines.”
Woodhouse and Clapham are developing new strategies for reaching high school students who are pondering their academic futures. Part of the recruitment strategy involves meeting regularly with alumni and making sure our female engineering graduates and students are active at recruiting events.
There seem to be no limits to how women engineers are participating in the work world. For some, like Jennifer Howard-Grenville, a solid grounding in engineering was the stepping stone to teaching in the business college at the U of Oregon. She can see there’s been a definite uptake in the number of female engineering students at Queen’s, but says, “It’s still too early to declare victory.”
Prof. Hutchinson sees her Geological Engineering grads heading off down new career paths, and the future looks bright. “I’ve seen women taking on all of the roles within engineering equally with the men, whether it’s working in the field, the office, the lab or the academy. And it’s great. The future is very bright in terms of employment. The career choices are amazing – full of engineering challenges that are very engaging and require innovative thinking.”
And for those women graduates who have just participated in their iron ring ceremony and are heading out the door of Grant Hall, the opportunities look rosy as well. For Jenn Day, Geological Engineering has been a good choice because it is such a specific discipline and appeals to her love of the outdoors and of travel. “It’s still a small field, it’s relatively new, and there hasn’t been a widespread bias against women.”
Victoria Pleavin knows that her specialty, Computer Engineering, remains male-dominated, but says she is “a gutsy, outgoing person” who’s not afraid to tackle issues head on. “I’ve heard some stories about women not being treated equally in the work force, but I’m willing to challenge the way things are,” she says. Willing … and, this is a key point, able, too.“[Studying here] has been a worthwhile experience, and the atmosphere at Queen’s has been really positive.”
That’s the kind of talk that Dean Woodhouse and Associate Dean Clapham are encouraged to hear. “The Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science at Queen’s is about more than just the academics,” says Woodhouse. “It’s also about the potential for experience outside the classroom: community service, role modelling, and being active in the whole recruitment process.”
They’ve opened the door by advertising the strengths of the existing program; and new graduates from the program are finding new doors opening for them – doors to a world of exciting, new opportunities and challenges.