To Elizabeth Croft, it's no mystery why women traditionally shy away from careers in engineering: no one invites them.
Dr. Croft, a professor of mechanical engineering and associate dean, education and professional development, in the Faculty of Applied Science at UBC, is among a growing number of educators and advocates who are working to rectify that.
Diversity programs that target women, indigenous people and visible minorities are helping to boost confidence, change mindsets, and stress the significance of applied science in the world and in daily life. They are delivered through workshops, summer camps, after-school activities, teacher training, mentoring and other activities that encourage these under-represented groups to study and work in science and engineering.
"We need to invite them," explains Dr. Croft, a specialist in robot-human interaction who was past NSERC Chair for Women in Science and Engineering in the B.C. and Yukon region, which started a program that supports the recruitment and retention of women in the field. The efforts are producing results: approximately one-third of students in UBC's first-year engineering undergraduate programs this autumn will be women, an increase from 19 per cent in 2010. And they've set a goal of reaching 50 per cent by 2020.
"UBC is showing leadership with its goal, so it's encouraging to see what can happen when there's a real commitment to taking steps to effect the change you want to see," says Ann English, CEO of the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of British Columbia. "Increasing the participation of women in the profession will have a positive impact on the future of engineering in B.C."
The numbers also reflect initiatives by groups such as Actua, a national charitable organization involved in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) outreach. Its programs include 250,000 Canadians aged six to 26 in more than 500 communities across the country, with a particular focus on girls, new Canadians, indigenous and at-risk youth.
Jennifer Flanagan, co-founder and CEO of Actua, says the key is exposing young people to "hands-on" science and technology, building their skills and competencies, and introducing them to positive role models. In its National Girls Program, for example, women undergraduate students teach girls about engineering and science. The National Indigenous Youth in STEM program works with 200 First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities across the country. Its Go Where Kids Are program partners with local organizations to reach new Canadians, at-risk youth and those facing socio-economic challenges.
"Early exposure is critical to turning that switch on for youths to consider these fields, both as future career options and how important they are to our lives," Ms. Flanagan says, noting that digital skills, coding and other computer science courses are particularly popular. "Demand is through the roof – we have programs selling out in minutes."
As well as acquiring critical skills, hands-on training makes science and engineering more relevant to underrepresented youths "and allows them to imagine different futures for themselves," Ms. Flanagan says. "We will not reach our true innovation potential as a country unless there are diverse voices at the table."
Andrew McLeod, CEO of Engineers and Geoscientists New Brunswick, echoes that. "Engineers are problem-solvers," he says. "If they're going to come up with solutions for Canada's biggest challenges, the profession should better reflect the population it is serving."
Dr. Croft calls engineering "a team sport" and says "diverse teams are smarter teams." The key to achieving diversity is to "go about it intentionally," she remarks. "You have to keep your foot on the pedal."
For example, she says UBC's goal of attaining 50 per cent women in their engineering programs by 2020 "is a big, ambitious goal.
"But if you don't have big, ambitious goals, you won't get anywhere."
BY THE NUMBERS
Number of students enrolled in undergraduate engineering programs in Canada in 2014
Percentage of engineering undergraduate students who are women
Canada's rank out of 16 peer countries for the proportion of all students graduating in 2010
Sources: Engineers Canada, Conference Board of Canada
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