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(May 23, 2002, Gazette)

Towards critical mass

(L-R) Sarika Wadhawan, Lisa Holden, Kelly Joy and Karen Horwood

Photo by Chris Hammond
After six long years they finally have the ring. Engineering graduates (L-R) Sarika Wadhawan, Lisa Holden, Kelly Joy and Karen Horwood have a lot to be happy about. For them, the ring that all Canadian engineers receive upon graduation is a symbol of their committment to do the best that they can in their chosen field.

It comes as no surprise to Dr. Mary Williams, Petro-Canada Chair for Women in Science and Engineering, that many of this year’s graduating female engineering students finished at the top of their class in their chosen discipline.

“One of the reasons that you might find women at the top of their class is that they tend not to choose engineering unless they are really good students,” she said. “These women have worked very hard and their success is well deserved.”

Dr. Williams hopes the news will help encourage average high school students to consider engineering as an option, as well as make the public more aware of how successful women who pursue engineering can be.

When asked about their experience here at Memorial, a sample of female graduates had a lot to say:

“I enjoyed the work terms, met a lot of great friends who made it easier to deal with the challenges of doing engineering. We were all in it together and we helped each other along.” — Lisa Holden, B.Eng. (mechanical), Mount Pearl, NF.

“Sometimes you doubt your abilities when the program you are doing is so new, like differential equations where math is all symbols and no longer numbers. It feels like starting over. But as you learn, your confidence grows.”
— Sarika Wadhawan, B.Eng. (electrical), St. John’s, NF.

“I took a leap of faith and decided to give engineering a try. I discovered it was for me and felt at home almost immediately.”
— Cecilia Mok, B.Eng. (computer), St. John’s, NF.

“I put a lot of time into doing well in my courses and on my work terms. My success means a lot to me.” — Kelly Joy, B.Eng. (mechanical), Harbour Main, NF.

“The best part of engineering is that I found something I really like doing.”
— Karen Horwood, B.Eng. (civil), St. John’s, NF.

This year in Memorial’s Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science, 29 women will graduate out of a class of 130. That’s 22 per-cent of the graduating class as compared to 16 per cent in 2001. The number of women pursuing engineering has been increasing since the 1980s, but there is still a long way to go before reaching what Dr. Williams terms “critical mass.”

This means that if 33 per cent of a group are women, then whenever two or more of that group work together, there is a better chance that at least one of them will be a woman. It is only at this point, that female engineers will no longer be considered a minority.

“If we do nothing, we will continue to have a very slow increase and it will take years and years before we actually achieve a good representation. Instead, we should continue to be active on all fronts. We have to pick the influence point and keep working on that,” said Dr. Williams.

For a long time, organizations such as Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) have been encouraging people to see that women are underrepresented in science and engineering. More active recruitment in high schools, where the critical decisions are made for university, is needed. This will help to ensure that students are aware of engineering as an option, and it will also give them a better understanding of what an engineer does. Sending undergraduate engineering students out into the high schools to talk about what they do and why it is exciting has shown to be the most effective recruitment tool.

The female students who do consider engineering as an option have a lot of things in common. They are all strong in math and sciences, they find the job opportunities promising, and they have a curiosity for how things work and fit together. Like all students, they find the engineering program challenging and long.

But as Kelly Joy points out, “When you think about most other university students, they don’t have two years of work experience by the time they graduate. This gives us an advantage and it is more beneficial in the long run.”

As for being aware that they were in a minority, none of the several students interviewed found this to be an issue. For Cecilia Mok, the only female student in the graduating computer engineering class, it was a little intimidating at first. “There was a bit of an adjustment. But I learned a lot along the way and never felt any prejudice towards me.”

According to Dr. Williams, “Our students are typical of students all across the country; they are not explicitly aware of the gender factor in their own experience. First of all, they are busy trying to do engineering, which is a full time job whether you are male or female. Secondly, they have been women all their lives, and chances are they have always been the smart one. The biggest challenge is getting them to understand what the baseline is and how they are different from the baseline.”

For many of the graduates, they plan on pursuing involvement with WISE now that they are finished school. They all recognize the importance of encouraging and promoting engineering to young women. As Ms. Mok points out, “There was no barrier to prevent me from studying engineering, but in my experience it certainly was not encouraged. I would like to change that. If I can show people that I did it, then they can see that it is achievable for them too.”