Winnie Lai never really had any doubts about what she would study after high school. "I love to take things apart. I like science and math. I knew early on that I wanted to study engineering."
A top physics student, Ms. Lai said that her high school physics teacher, who was also an engineer, nudged her dream along, providing support and encouragement. "I spent a lot of time talking with her and she prepared me, helped me understand what to expect at university."
The two kept in touch while Ms. Lai pursued her undergraduate degree in engineering physics at the University of British Columbia. And when she graduated last spring, it was that same high school teacher who presented her with her iron ring. "It's custom that the ring is presented by a fellow engineer, so that was quite special."
Ms. Lai was fortunate to find a female mentor to guide her through her science and engineering studies. In what's still largely a male-dominated field, such role models are hard to find.
In fact, the number of women getting into engineering in Canada has been on the decline, despite a decade of efforts to encourage more girls to think of technical careers. Even though women currently make up more than half of the undergraduate populations across Canada, the number of women enrolled in engineering programs dropped from a high of 21 per cent in 2001 to 17 per cent in 2009. The portion of licensed engineers in Canada who are women has grown from 7 per cent in 2000, but the figure still sits at only 10 per cent, according to Ottawa-based Engineers Canada.
Why don't more young women take an interest in science and engineering? It's certainly not for lack of efforts at motivation. In the past five years, industry and academics alike have introduced myriad initiatives designed to attract more women to the field.
Tyseer Aboulnasr, dean of the faculty of applied science and a professor of electrical engineering at the University of British Columbia, said the decline rests squarely on the shoulders of engineers themselves.
"Collectively, we have focused too much on the technology side, on building things," Dr. Aboulnasr said. Women tend to want to help people and choose careers that allow them to make a meaningful contribution to society, and may not see how engineering can have such an impact, she said. "Somehow we lost the message that engineering can improve people's lives."
That is reflected by the fact that women are a significant presence in certain engineering disciplines (biosystems, environmental, chemical), in which they can clearly see how their work makes a difference.
Valerie Davidson, an engineering professor at the University of Guelph who is also the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council/RIM chair for women in science and engineering, said there is still an overall lack of awareness of what engineers do.
Ms. Lai agrees that misconceptions about engineering abound. When she first embarked on her engineering degree, she recalled, even her friends thought it was "dirty work, something that a tradesperson would do."
A 2009 Engineers Canada survey of young women in high school found that many had negative perceptions of engineering and technology occupations. According to the report: "Most equate engineering and technology (but especially engineering) with construction work, outdoor work, working in a cubicle, and relating primarily to computers and machines, rather than people."
The result is that women attribute lower status to engineering and technology occupations compared with, for example, health and social sciences.
That's not surprising, Dr. Davidson said. "There's high prestige for the medical profession. From a very early age it's seen as important work and a privilege," she noted, adding it's the sort of message the engineering community has failed to leverage.
The study also pointed to another deterrent: discomfort with a male-dominated environment and the consequent need to adapt.
"It's still a difficult place for women to be," agrees Kerry Black, who is currently finishing her thesis for her master's degree in civil engineering at UBC. Ms. Black, who completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto in 2007, said she learned that lesson even before she began studying engineering.
While attending a Toronto-based university fair in 2002, she asked a Queen's University representative about the admission requirements for the engineering program. "The gentleman looked at me and said, 'You have to have good marks, perhaps you might want to consider other programs,' " she recalled. "I asked him four or five different times what marks I needed, and couldn't get a straight answer."
Incensed by his response, Ms. Black, a top high school student who excelled in sciences and math, enrolled at U of T. Once there, she said, she struggled, largely because she didn't fit the image of a traditional engineer: "I like makeup, I like to dress up and wear high heels and that made me a target. There were comments made in the classroom and that did bother me." It wasn't until she was connected with a female engineering professor, who became her mentor, that she really felt on track. Without that support, Ms. Black said she likely would not have stayed in the field.
Some schools are increasing the number of female faculty to provide more role models that will in turn help attract more young women to the profession. Meanwhile, much of the emphasis of both universities and industry associations is getting out the message that engineering is a helping profession.
At UBC, Dr. Aboulnasr said the focus is on "bringing back the idea that through engineering you can make people's lives better." To highlight the connections between engineering, solutions and society, UBC has introduced community service learning into its curriculum. Last year, for example, fourth-year students worked with community partners to develop shoes for a woman who had difficulty walking, Dr. Aboulnasr said.
University of Toronto and Queen's University each report modest increases in the number of female engineering students this year. And the number of women registered in Engineer in Training programs across Canada (a mandatory prelicensing phase), is now equal to the number of female engineering graduates, Guelph's Dr. Davidson said.
Initiatives designed to reach high school girls are also showing promise. Go Eng Girl!, an annual event supported by Ontario's 15 faculties of engineering and the Ontario Network of Women in Engineering, is aimed at promoting engineering to girls in grades seven to 10. It has grown steadily since it began in 2005. This year's event attracted more than 1,000 girls, up from about 600 participants in 2009.
Although much still needs to be done to change the negative perceptions that discourage women from becoming engineers, Ms. Black is cautiously optimistic. "It's a profession steeped in tradition. It is changing, but at a glacial pace."
Special to The Globe and Mail
ENGINEERS IN THE MAKING
Women in undergraduate engineering courses in Canada, as portion of enrolment:
1975: 3.6 per cent
1985: 10.8 per cent
1995: 18.8 per cent
2005: 17.4 per cent
2009: 17.4 per cent
What they study
Percentage of undergrads in engineering disciplines who are women:
2002: 44 per cent
2009: 40 per cent
2002: 25 per cent
2009: 22 per cent
2002: 13 per cent
2009: 9.5 per cent
2002: 44 per cent
2009: 39 per cent
2002: 15 per cent
2009: 10 per cent
Source: Engineers Canada