Gender gap persists in B.C.’s engineering sector

Disparity remains despite efforts to attract and train more female professionals

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B.C.'s engineering ranks continue to suffer from a dearth of female engineers despite a looming skills shortage in the province.

That’s the observation of provincial industry groups and engineering faculties at B.C.’s top schools. Their members say that decade-long efforts are starting to address that shortfall, but the employment parity achieved in B.C.’s medical and legal fields is still a long way off, even though the province and the country are facing acute engineer shortages.

Statistics Canada data this month shows that the percentage of female students in B.C. post-secondary engineering and architecture programs remains low at 19.1% as of 2016-17 compared with 15.8% in 2012-13.

The low percentage contrasts sharply with total female enrolment in all B.C. post-secondary programs, which reached 55.7% in 2016-17. The engineering number also pales in comparison with programs such as health (72.7%) and law/social sciences (66.4%).

Out in the field, the percentage of women in engineering in B.C. is just 12%, although in the engineers-in-training category (those who recently graduated and are now working in the sector), that number rises to around 20%, said Engineers and Geoscientists BC (EGBC) president Kathy Tarnai-Lokhorst.

“We don’t think this is high enough, so this is something we are working hard to change.”

Tarnai-Lokhorst added that officials face two long-standing challenges in trying to persuade more women to join their ranks: social perception of engineering as a gendered career and general misconceptions about the profession.

One of the most effective ways to counter stereotypes is to provide role models for girls within the engineering industry, Tarnai-Lokhorst said.

“Seeing oneself represented in the industry where they work can change a person’s ideas about what they are capable of, and instil a sense of belonging. For example, while 50% of students who take Physics 11 in high school are girls, we only see a small, albeit growing, number of female students enrolled in engineering programs at post-secondary institutions. We need to build on this momentum.”

Some progess is being made.

For example, women now make up almost 32% of the engineering student body at the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) faculty of applied science. That’s up from 18% a decade ago, said Sheryl Staub-French, UBC professor of civil engineering and dean’s adviser on equity, diversity and inclusion.

Staub-French said the industry’s challenge in attracting female students goes beyond gender stereotypes. One major problem, she said, is the almost invisible, hiding-in-plain-sight nature of the profession.

“Part of our issue is that people don’t really know what engineering is,” she said. “You should look up ‘engineer’ on Google. We do this in our talks and outreach programs, and the perception is generally you are out in the field with a hard hat. You talk to some kids, and they may think you are the person driving the train. So the challenge is, unlike science, where you hear about it all the time in K-12, you don’t hear about engineering at that level, and I think that’s a huge problem.”

The lack of visibility helps create a gender imbalance favouring males in the pool of high school graduates looking to engineering as a career. Staub-French said people who go into engineering usually learn about it through family members who have worked in the profession, not through high school.

And most of those professionals are traditionally male.

“If you talk to engineers, so many people will say, ‘My brother or my uncle is an engineer.’ That’s how people learn about engineering,” Staub-French said. “That was the case for me; my brother happened to be in mechanical engineering, and my dad said, ‘Why don’t you be an engineer?’ And I was good at math and said, ‘OK, why not?’”

Both Staub-French and Tarnai-Lokhorst said there is a danger in B.C. not maximizing the talent that’s available to potentially become engineers here in the province. According to EGBC, about 30% of current B.C. engineers are 55 or older, indicating that there’s a looming skills shortage as those engineers retire.

Staub-French added that B.C. not only fails to graduate enough engineers to meet local demand, but also suffers from one of the lowest per capita rates of engineer training in Canada. Federal projections suggest the entire country will face a shortfall of 100,000 engineers by 2020 with current trends.

“Absolutely, we are doing damage” by having an imbalanced workforce, Staub-French said. “Absolutely, we are missing out on some of our most brilliant minds not choosing the engineering profession – something that they may very well like and thrive in.”

Tarnai-Lokhorst added that diverse teams in the field tend to perform better.

“Research has shown that men and women create knowledge differently. When more diverse viewpoints are represented within a group, the better the overall solutions are likely to be. In turn, this helps increase innovation while providing a greater return on human resource investment.”

She added that EGBC is participating in programs such as Engineers Canada’s 30 by 30, which seeks to raise the percentage of newly licensed female engineers to 30% countrywide by 2030. Events will be held in March – including a flagship gathering on March 2 called Science Games for children in grades 1 through 6 to participate in challenges at Science World.

Such programs can only help, Staub-French said.

“I think the biggest shifts we need is to get into K-12 schools, just like coding. But I’m absolutely optimistic, because I’m seeing deliberate efforts are being translated into results. The more we do outreach, the more we talk about it, and the more this stays front and centre in people’s minds, we will make a difference.”