Engineers are playing an increasingly important role in society, but with gender biases alive and well, there’s a wealth of female talent that’s going untapped. Three female engineers weigh in on how to change this picture.
The work done by engineers touches many aspects of modern life. From biochemical engineers who develop pharmaceuticals to civil engineers who design our subways and high-rises, there are few career paths with as much potential for impact.
Like many STEM fields, however, engineering still lacks female representation. Female enrolment in undergraduate engineering programs hovers around 20%. The numbers have been gradually improving for years, but it’s clear that when it comes to gender parity in the field, there’s work to be done.
As the world ventures further into the digital revolution, the risk that women will be left out of the picture is especially high. Further, since engineering is a lucrative career path — experienced workers in Canada can make more than $100,000 a year — the problem threatens to worsen the existing gender pay gap.
Why parents should do more than just recommend STEM
Rashmi Prakash, a biomedical engineering master’s student who graduated from UBC with a degree in electrical engineering, says she’s had a lot of support through her career, but still runs up against gender bias. A bus driver once remarked, upon seeing her carrying a toolbox for electrical work, that she had an unusual-looking makeup case.
That’s the type of ignorance and stereotyping young women are up against. It’s also why parents and industry leaders should play an active role in encouraging girls to pursue STEM education and careers.
Fortunately, Prakash always had an aptitude for building things and figuring out how they work. “My dad was an electrical engineer, and he never told me I couldn’t do something because I’m a girl — instead it was always, ‘Rashmi, come help me fix the basement, come help me solder this,’” she says. Today, Prakash is developing a minimally-invasive tool that safely tracks fetal movement.
What parents and industry leaders can do
“Everyone likes to talk about their jobs. Parents of young girls should reach out to people in the industry to try and connect their child to someone in the profession,” says Kelsie Priest, a structural engineer and advocate for women in engineering. Priest also recommends reaching out to women in engineering groups, like Women in Consulting Engineering (WCE), of which she is co-chair. “With support from these groups, I have the tools and confidence I need to aspire to leadership roles within my profession” she says.
Paige Ngo, a scholarship-winning engineering student in her final year at UBC, echoes the importance of networking or creating experiences for exposure. “Reach out to friends and family and arrange a coffee date with an engineer,” she says. “Growing up, I didn’t even know what engineers did or realize how many problems they solve. Engineering is an enormously fulfilling, creative career path, and girls who think they might have an aptitude for it should keep that in mind.”
Opportunities for women in engineering abound, but parents must take concrete steps to connect their daughters with role models, expose them to engineering experiences in high school and encourage them to explore options they may not have considered.
Women in Engineering: A Look at the Numbers
Statistically, girls perform equally to boys in math and science in high school
Only 5% of 15-year-old girls expect to work in engineering compared to 12% of boys
Women make up only 13% of civil, mechanical, electrical, and chemical engineers in Canada
Women in STEM jobs earn 35% more than women in non-STEM jobs, 40% more than men in non-STEM jobs
Among STEM graduates, those with engineering degrees earned the most, averaging $76,500 per year