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The XX Factor: Women in Science

For female engineers, Alberta calls Add to ...

Deanna Burgart graduated from Lakehead University in Thunder Bay with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering in 2010 and now works in the Calgary office of international consulting firm WorleyParsons. While there are companies across Canada that would be interested in hiring Ms. Burgart, she intends to develop her career in Alberta, where average annual base salaries range from nearly $50,000 for a co-op student to more than $212,000 for an experienced engineer.

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A recent report by CIBC World Markets Inc. warns that there are skilled labour shortfalls looming, including in science and engineering, a trend Ms. Burgart is hoping will benefit her future promotions. In the heart of Canada’s petroleum industry, men still far outnumber women, despite outreach efforts to recruit more female engineers and geoscientists. The underrepresentation of women is also prevalent in the larger corporate sector, where Canada ranks toward the middle of the pack in the percentage of females on boards of directors.

Women who have succeeded in science and engineering say that they have sometimes had to address gender assumptions, but that their science careers have been tremendously rewarding.

“There are different expectations that some first-year students would have from a female professor than they would have for a male professor,” said University of Calgary associate professor Jocelyn Grozic. “There are societal expectations that a woman will be more caring and nurturing. A lot of students see a female professor as more willing or able to help.”

Prof. Grozic works in the field of geotechnical engineering where she specializes in the research of gas hydrates – an ice-like substance consisting of methane (the main constituent of natural gas), trapped in a rigid cage of water molecules.

Her academic research could help pave the way for a new energy source, though it might take another generation to come to commercial fruition. It will take many years to develop economically viable methods of extracting methane at places where gas hydrates are trapped, including on the floor of the Pacific Ocean, off Vancouver Island.

Women will be instrumental in driving innovation in science and engineering in the classroom and in the private sector, Prof. Grozic said. “Women can provide a different perspective. In my own research on gas hydrates, when we are sitting around the table and brainstorming, my best thinking comes when I am talking to somebody, bouncing ideas off them,” she said. “Maybe it’s a female thing, though not always, but I’m usually talking pretty quickly and throwing out ideas and having feedback and interaction.”

Popular culture could help play a role in drawing more women to engineering, said Ms. Burgart, pointing to the comedy The Big Bang Theory, whose colourful characters include a female physicist and a female neuroscientist. Ms. Burgart, who admits to having a shower curtain with the periodic table of chemical elements, said that even though the show is “over the top” and the main characters are socially dysfunctional men, she appreciates the science references, especially to physics.

“I always tell kids if you like building things and you like to be creative and problem solving, if you enjoy constantly learning and wondering how things work, that’s the type of thing to expect in a career in engineering,” said Ms. Burgart, who hopes to obtain her professional engineering designation, or P.Eng, in two years.

Ms. Burgart’s salary is likely to increase as she climbs the professional ladder. The level of compensation is forecast to rise for both male and female engineers, although men make more money than women. The Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta (APEGA) conducted a survey in mid-2012 of 87 companies representing 9,635 members. Male engineers in the highest pay category reported an average annual base salary of $214,255, compared with $196,232 for female engineers.

APEGA argues that in order to meet the labour crunch, companies should recruit more underrepresented groups – foreign-educated graduates, aboriginals and women. For now, women account for 14 per cent of the total membership of the organization of 65,241 and APEGA has set a target to raise the proportion of women among its ranks to 30 per cent by 2030.

In the long term, solving the employment shortage will require a younger generation to pursue scientific fields. Prof. Grozic said math and science were her favourite subjects but younger girls sometimes drop these classes.

She graduated in 1999 from the University of Alberta with a PhD in geotechnical engineering and grew up in rural Alberta where she remembers being a hands-on kid. “I was always out there catching frogs or making dams in the mud and that sort of thing,” she said. “Certainly through school, math was something that came very easy for me, as did the sciences – physics and chemistry in particular. I knew in high school that I would probably be pursuing something in the sciences or engineering.”

She has advised her 10-year-old niece, Catherine, to keep an open mind after the girl soured on math, in particular. “I sat her down and said no matter what you do in life, it’s important that you know the fundamentals of math,” Prof. Grozic said. “If you’re going to be an actress, if that’s what you want to do, you’re going to have an agent who’s going to take a commission, and you don’t want to get fleeced.”

Being keen on science and engineering runs in the family. Her husband Ed works as a consultant in geotechnical engineering, focusing on the Arctic. Her older brother is a computer scientist and her younger brother has a PhD in geophysics. Their father, Don Hayley, is a retired geotechnical engineer while their biologist mother, Dianne Hayley, co-wrote the Knee High Nature series of books for children.

The mother of two girls, ages six and eight, Prof. Grozic enrolled her eldest daughter, Milana, in an all-girls science camp this past summer at the University of Calgary, saying it provided a calmer environment because boys tend to be less focused at a young age.

When it comes to speaking to a classroom of boys and girls in Grade 5 or 6, Prof. Grozic talks strictly about science and engineering, not gender differences.

“Being a role model is not so much telling young girls that they should go into engineering. By standing up in the class and being an engineer, the girls see that they can be an engineer,” Prof. Grozic said.

Follow on Twitter: @brentcjang

 

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