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Students applying to engineering programs at the University of Waterloo must answer a simple essay question: Why do you want to be an engineer?

New research suggests young men and women answer differently. After analyzing more than 30,000 undergraduate applications over three years to Waterloo’s engineering department, Lukasz Golab found males often described how their technical skills and experience matched the profession. Female applicants, on the other hand, cast toward the future: They wanted a career that enabled them to impact and improve society.

The findings, Mr. Golab said, could reveal how universities can best approach marketing their engineering programs to attract more female applicants. Engineering is a male-dominated industry. Women make up 12.8 per cent of the nation’s engineering work force, according to Ottawa-based organization Engineers Canada. But at the university level, they account for 20 per cent of undergraduate engineering students.

The gap in data, Engineers Canada spokesperson Shelley Ford said, is tied to some women’s decision to not obtain their engineering license after graduation, and switch careers entirely as a result of difficulties they encounter in the work force. Of the applications Mr. Golab analyzed, 23 per cent were from females.

“You spend enough time on a university campus, it’s fairly clear that there’s a gender imbalance in science and engineering,” Mr. Golab said. Using his computer science background, he wanted to uncover the reasons why. With a team of researchers, he spent six months analyzing engineering applications using artificial intelligence (AI) technology that looked for words and phrases that can highlight differences between male and female applicants.

His findings showed male and female candidates tend to be similar when it comes to interest in the technical side of engineering. The difference, however, comes with how applicants sell themselves – men focus on the depth of their experience, while women focus on the breadth. Female applicants’ extracurricular activities, for example, emphasize leadership skills and artistic pursuits, while male applicants tend to focus on activities related to the technical aspects of engineering.

When asked about motivations behind pursuing studies in engineering, 16 per cent of female applicants were more likely to mention their desire to make a “contribution to society,” compared to 14 per cent of male applicants. Female applicants were also more likely to mention a “love of science,” 26 per cent, versus 21 per cent of male applicants.

The importance of making a contribution to society for women is reflected in student demographics of biomedical and environmental engineering programs, where data obtained by the University of Waterloo suggests 58 per cent of students enrolled are female. Valerie Davidson, an engineering professor at the University of Guelph and former Ontario chair for Women in Science and Engineering, said there is more gender equity in those disciplines because the connection to contributing to better healthcare and a better quality of life is more “obvious.” Ms. Davidson added that the overall impact of other engineering streams may be “somewhat hidden” from the public, and is not properly communicated.

The study infers that attracting more women to study engineering lies in how the profession is being marketed. Instead of focusing on the technical aspects of engineering, undergraduate recruiters and first-year curriculums should include a broader sense of how engineering can be applicable to society and help others. There should also be emphasis on different types of learning opportunities and careers that would be available for women to pursue.

“[Women] should study engineering not because they can, but also because they should want to,” Mr. Golab said.

Ms. Davidson said outreach efforts should also make sure there are visible role models. “If they don’t see women in these programs, then they think ‘Well, would I really fit? Is there a place for me?’” she said.

The research was presented to Waterloo’s faculty of engineering, Mr. Golab said, in hopes of influencing how the university chooses to attract female applicants moving forward. According to university spokesperson Matthew Grant, the number of female applicants to Waterloo’s engineering programs has been rising. In 2009, women accounted for 20.1 per cent of first-year engineering students. That number is now 31 per cent, Mr. Grant said.

Mr. Golab said he hopes to continue using this technology to further study the journey of women in engineering, from graduate studies to the work force. His hope is to find the answer to this question: “At what point are we losing the interest of qualified female students?"

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