• Women in Science and Engineering
    - Still in Search of a Critical Mass

    By Donna Wuest

    Women in engineering and science still face the challenges of working in traditionally male-dominated careers. "Sometimes I feel isolated," says Elizabeth Croft, P.Eng., PhD., assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of British Columbia. "I'm one of two women faculty in a large department."

    "That's why we're on the phone to each other at least a couple of times a week," responds Christine Forget, who holds a master's degree in engineering and works across the UBC campus in the Faculty of Forestry.

    "It's comforting to have that contact," adds Dr. Croft. "It's like virtual critical mass."

    The phone calls back and forth across the campus were more frequent leading up to the "Women in the Workplace, Achieving Harmony" conference held May 21-23 in Vancouver, and co-chaired by Dr. Croft. The conference, hosted by the Division for Advancement of Women in Engineering and Geoscience (DAWEG) and Canadian Coalition of Women in Engineering, Science and Technology (CCWEST), drew 275 participants -- female and male -- from across the country and as far away as Sweden.

    "Women in the Workplace" provided a forum for the discussion of issues affecting women engineers, scientists, technologists, and mathematicians.

    In her opening address to the conference, federal Secretary of State (Multiculturalism and Status of Women) Hedy Fry identified time as one of the biggest challenges for women in demanding professions. "Women do more unpaid work than men, taking care of children and parents, doing housework," she said. "We must become more sensitive to the differences in women's and men's lives and respond to these differences. One size does not fit all . . . Until you get critical mass, things will not change." Dr. Fry defined critical mass as 30 per cent, a representation that women have not yet achieved in engineering, science, or technology.

    For example, less than five per cent of executives in the energy sector in Calgary are women. That percentage has remained static since 1978, noted Elizabeth Cannon, P.Eng., PhD, a University of Calgary professor of geomatics engineering who holds the National Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC)/Petro-Canada Chair for Women in Science and Engineering for the Prairie Region.

    "The NSERC/Petro-Canada Chair is focusing on the under-representation of women in areas of strong job opportunities," said Dr. Cannon, who is also a member of APEGGA Council.

    NSERC regional Chairs from across Canada reported on their goals and strategies. "Our role is to increase participation of women in all aspects of engineering and science," said Monique Frize, P.Eng., PhD, professor of engineering at the University of Ottawa and Carleton University; and NSERC/Nortel Chair in Ontario. In the early 1990s, Dr. Frize chaired the Committee on Women in Engineering which prepared a major report "More Than Just Numbers". The report provided a range of recommendations to attract women into the engineering profession and, once in the profession, to make them feel more comfortable.

    Across Canada, the NSERC Chairs are working to change attitudes and images of women in engineering and science through communication and education of students from kindergarten to university, their parents, teachers, school counsellors, as well as industry and academia.

    The "Achieving Harmony" Conference gave the NSERC regional Chairs the opportunity to listen and learn from each other and from the participants. "One of the goals of our conference was to find ways we can work together, prevent duplication of efforts and make better use of our valuable time," says Ms. Forget.

    That goal applied to individuals as well. Throughout the conference, there were opportunities for participants to talk and network. There were "netwalking" times after lunch, social events in the evenings, and an overnight retreat at the Vancouver Aquarium on the final evening.

    Workshops provided participants with training and information to help achieve harmony between exciting and demanding careers, and their personal lives. There were Internet workshops, personal financial counselling, human resource sessions, time management workshop, and other skills training sessions.

    To celebrate successes achieved by women in engineering and science, the conference featured poster sessions and paper presentations.

    During the conference, Sue Hammell, B.C.'s minister of women's equality, announced a $30,000 grant towards NSERC's Alternate Routes to Computing program. DAWEG announced a new Managing Diversity Award for B.C. companies employing engineers and geoscientists and promoting flexible work options; and CCWEST officially launched its Web page (http://www.ccwest.org) and list server.

    Individual participants were challenged to identify at least one action item to help them achieve harmony in their lives.

    The energy and enthusiasm that built during the conference and the networking that occurred could go a long way toward developing that virtual critical mass described by Dr. Croft.