Women in Construction

Breaking down barriers to DEI

June 26, 2024
By Canadian Consulting Engineer Avatar photo
Presented by:
Women in Engineering (WiE) Hackathon

Photo courtesy University of Waterloo.

The engineering discipline lags behind several other professions in terms of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) principles. In 2019, for example, only 13% of licensed engineers in Canada were female, compared to 41.6% of legal professionals and 42% of medical professionals. (Note: Only data on binary sexes are currently available, signalling the exclusion of trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming people at the systemic level.

Early-stage barriers

Ensuring a more inclusive next generation of engineers in Canada begins with critically examining who is—and who is not—aware of engineering and its prerequisites at the high school level. A significant early-stage barrier is that female students (along with other students belonging to groups currently underrepresented in engineering) are not being empowered to take Grade 12 university-track physics, a prerequisite for all accredited undergraduate engineering programs in Canada.

A 2018 Ontario Network of Women in Engineering (ONWiE) study found only 15% of female students who completed Grade 10 academic science in Ontario enrolled in Grade 12 physics, compared to 30% of male students. As a result, many girls are not leaving high school ‘engineering-ready,’ i.e. equipped with all the required courses to apply to engineering, including Grade 12 physics (where the ONWiE study found 66% of Ontario physics students in 2016 were male).

Another study in 2023 highlighted how educational interventions aimed at increasing awareness and interest in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields among young women and girls can have a significant positive impact on their likelihood to pursue related subjects at the high school level, thereby making them more engineering-ready by the time they graduate.

The engineering profession does not currently fulfil its statutory mandate.

One of the issues is both parents and guidance counsellors are not identifying girls as potential engineering applicants. They are also unlikely to do so for racialized, disabled, neurodivergent and 2SLGBTQ+ students, those seeking equity based on different protected grounds and those at the intersection of various equity-seeking identities.

Protecting the public interest

Statutes and policies clearly require engineers to serve and protect the public interest. Professional Engineers Ontario (PEO), for example, has a statutory duty to regulate itself in the public interest, under section 2(3) of the Professional Engineers Act. Section 5 of the PEO’s guideline on professional practice goes a step further, stating members of the profession—and not just the regulatory body itself—have a duty to the public.

Engineers must serve and protect the interest of all members of the public, not just those who align with the dominant identities in the profession. The lack of female individuals in automotive engineering, for instance, has contributed to vehicle safety features poorly suited to the female anatomy, while the absence of people with physical disabilities in civil engineering has led to some of the country’s most important buildings being inaccessible to many. Such examples form the basis of an argument that the engineering profession does not currently fulfil its statutory mandate.

Educational interventions can have a significant positive impact in making girls more engineering-ready.

Empowering leaders

In 2012, the University of Waterloo’s Faculty of Engineering—Canada’s largest engineering school—saw its first woman dean, the since-deceased Pearl Sullivan. At that time, only 18.5% of the faculty’s undergraduate students were women. By the end of Sullivan’s term in 2019, that number had increased to 29%. It rose again to 39% in 2022 under the leadership of a second woman dean, Mary Wells.

This trend suggests the system needs to make space for girls and women not only to study engineering, but also to go on to become deans, heads of engineering firms and leaders of regulatory bodies, among other prominent roles.

Seeking equity

More equity-seeking leaders in engineering spaces will foster more opportunities to implement policies and practices that improve access to the profession for equity-seeking people. As such, this is one of the ways to ensure engineers can work in the public’s best interest.

Michelle Liu (they/them), P.Eng., is an Ottawa-based Queer, racialized and non-binary engineer who worked in construction and design for consulting engineering firms after studying civil engineering at University of Waterloo. Their experience of racist, homophobic and gender-based violence in engineering empowered them to pursue a law degree and engineering PhD at University of Ottawa. Liu has served as a councillor for Professional Engineers Ontario (PEO), mentored with the Ontario Network for Women in Engineering (ONWIE), co-chaired a task force for the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers (OSPE) and co-created and co-funded the Liu-Kennington Award for the 2SLGBTQ+ Engineering Community.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2024 issue of Canadian Consulting Engineer.