SWE Toronto started in 2016 when a few engineering graduates got together and wanted to make a space in the city where they could speak to other women in the industry and to discuss the issues they faced in the workplace. Over this time, there have been numerous women who helped along the way and, for International Women in Engineering Day, we would like to feature them in our blog as a way of recognizing their achievements and show our appreciation for their support.
Interviewers: Alessandra Massaro and Evangeline Philos
Interviewees: Marilyn Spink, Valerie Davidson, Helen Wojcinski, and Barbara Sylvestre-Williams.
The following interviews are the personal opinions of the interviewees and do not reflect the opinions of their employers.
What Is One Piece Of Advice You Have For New And Recent Engineering/Stem Graduates?
MS: Promote yourself and celebrate your small successes. Work hard but not so hard that you have no time to build relationships at various levels within or outside your organizations. Always keep learning!
VD: Discover engineering by exploring as many opportunities as possible.
HW: I truly believe that you have not fully joined the profession until you get your licence. It is vital for new graduates to get those four years of relevant, engineering work experience and make the effort to get their licence as soon as they’re eligible. I cannot stress the importance of this enough.
Another piece of advice that is related to getting your license is ensuring that you research and pursue employers who encourage and support EITs in obtaining their licence, and even better, have a formal training program. It is a great way to assess if they value the licence. One of the goals of the PEO 30 by 30 task force, PEO’s response to an Engineers Canada initiative to raise the percentage of newly licensed engineers to 30% women by 2030, is to engage employers in creating welcoming environments for newly graduated engineers, especially women, in pursuing licensure and staying in the engineering field!
Some other tips: join your PEO chapter, OSPE, or other engineering organizations; get involved in the industry; network and meet other professionals; find a mentor and a sponsor; get your license! And when it seems hard to get through all the licensing process, don’t give up! Reach out to your network to help you get there. Your Professional Engineering license is important and valuable for your engineering career!
How have mentors or sponsors helped you throughout your career?
BSW: Mentors were never obvious. They emerged here and there. 20 years ago there were no programs or groups like SWE. At my age, I enjoy mentoring. Many do not realize I get many lessons and observe tremendous force coming up with the new generation. Not just young professionals but future engineers that are connected to issues in a very specific way and able to solve problems many of older age were told to ignore, or deal with alone.
VD: Mentors were key influences in my decision to pursue graduate studies and to continue on a career path in engineering when I finished. My early mentors were male and they understood the culture – academic and professional – in ways that I did not. They encouraged me to explore different opportunities, to recognize my strengths and to follow my own path.
How do you think men could play a bigger part in supporting women in the engineering industry?
HW: For far too long women have been expected to solve the gender inequity problem in engineering. This is problematic as the root of the inequity faced by women in engineering are attitudinal and behavioural in nature and engrained by societal norms. It is also unreasonable to ask the underrepresented group to solve an issue that is not necessarily understood or acknowledged by the larger majority.
For gender equity to be realized in the profession, men must be onboard with solving the issue and willing to be part of the solution. I was fortunate in that I had many encouraging men throughout my career. My main motivation to study engineering occurred in high school when my brother-in-law, who is an engineer, encouraged me to go into the field because he loved it and thought it was a great profession. Later, I had the opportunity to work at the Ministry of Transportation for supportive male engineering bosses and mentors that encouraged me to pursue and continue in my engineering career. If it was not for these men who were supportive and progressive in their senior roles, I might not be where I am today.
However, there were very few women in senior engineering positions at that time to act as role models. Even today, there aren’t enough women engineers in senior roles. We cannot expect these few senior women to mentor all the young women engineers and EITs. We need more men in engineering taking young women under their wings to mentor and sponsor them. We also need to modify the way that we mentor and sponsor to not only make it more inclusive, but to also more formally integrate it into the workplace and HR policies. Although it must be visibly spearheaded by senior engineering management, HR could also be a key advisor in developing mentoring programs.
Early on in my career there were some senior engineers that would take junior male EITs to the golf club and later mentor them in the clubhouse. Women didn’t really golf that much back then as decisions were being made at the 19th hole. During one of my summer employments, the company I worked for had a golf club. When I asked to join they told me “sorry, it’s only for men”. These attitudes are no longer acceptable but still some of these behaviors, though subtler, remain. It is therefore important for men to find inclusive ways to mentor junior EITs.
How do you envision an ideal world for women in STEM?
MS: Wish#1 - That the “male mad scientist” stereotype of a person who has a passion for science and math no longer exists so young women see themselves as “scientists” and pursue, without hesitation, careers in STEM. Wish #2 – That the leadership of organizations who hire engineers increase their diversity – culture, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, etc. With increased diversity, it is proven that organizations make better decisions. In engineering, there is a business case to address the needs of their technical talent. Workplaces that support parents will retain them throughout their child raising years. As we know it is women that often take the majority of the burden in child raising.
Have you ever had a major failure or setback in your career? How did you overcome it?
BSW: Absolutely. It happened early in my career where I was in a hostile work environment. I felt alone, without support and surrounded by bullies. At the time I thought "if this is what engineering environment is then I rather not pursue it!". I would like to point out that throughout my undergraduate studies, I worked each summer at various industrial companies and never met with such environment. It can take years to recover and gain confidence back. I left the position and the company. I emerged alive and am successful in my career as a professional engineer. Be kind to yourself! I told myself I would never abuse my status and be a better engineer, opposite of how my career begun. I promised to excel, to teach upcoming generations and, most of all, to create safe and respectful work environment.
Tell us about an accomplishment that you are really proud of.
BSW: Ok here it goes: I completed my graduate studies in 2 years with A average, while working full time, published before my thesis was submitted, defended my thesis 6 months pregnant and was nominated for Governor General Medal for my studies and thesis work. I had a very supportive supervisor Prof. Mehrab Mehrvar. My latest achievement: I am very proud of being able to solve a 3x3 Rubik's cube in under 3 minutes…and now I am a TRAILBLAZER!
VD: I am very proud to be the founding Chair of the Ontario Network of Women in Engineering (ONWiE). ONWiE is a unique collaboration that includes all of the schools and faculties of engineering in Ontario. Members offer a number of outreach programs to dispel stereotypes and show young girls and their parents that there are amazing opportunities in engineering. Since the first Go ENG Girl event in 2005, the number of applications by female students to Ontario engineering programs has tripled. I think I was a catalyst in helping ONWiE get started but it is the continued commitment of the members to collaboration and the leadership of Mary Wells (ONWiE Chair 2013 -2018) that are keys to its success. ONWiE’s achievements demonstrate the value of collective impact and I think this is a strategy that should be considered for other WiE activities.
What do you wish you were able to do that you think will be easier for future generations of women?
VD: I wish that I had a superpower to eliminate human prejudice and the implicit biases that contribute to stereotypes and societal attitudes that are incorrectly framed by gender. Unfortunately these preconceptions affect personal choices that women make at an early age (e.g. will I be popular if I do well in math? should I study engineering?). They also influence STEM workplace culture and hiring and promotion decisions. I realize that complete elimination is an ideal but we need to be persistent in challenging these biases so they do not continue to restrict the number of women who pursue STEM careers.
HW: My main objective for 30 by 30 is that the call to action on addressing this inequity is fully embraced by PEO, and by all men and women engineers. Responsibility for this issue needs to be owned by the entire engineering profession and not just a small group of women engineers. I’m hoping to engage men so that women no longer have to talk to each other about the same issues over and over again.
I’ve been fighting this fight for a long time. In 1990, just two years after obtaining my Professional Engineering license I joined PEO’s Women in Engineering Advisory Committee (WEAC) because I was already dealing with these issues and I was passionate about making positive changes in the profession. Almost 30 years later, it really disheartens me when I hear stories of young women today experiencing many of the barriers that I and my female engineering colleagues faced. I feel like my generation let them down, we did not get the job done.
I believe that one of the biggest barriers facing women engineers is still in the workplace. While more work needs to be done to encourage young women to enroll in engineering, I think we also need to focus on what happens to them once they graduate and how difficult it is for them to find a pathway to licensure and to stay in the profession. In today’s industry, inequity sometimes isn’t felt until after women get their license, perhaps even before that, while they are an EIT. It’s still not as welcoming a career as it can be for women and this needs to change.
While numbers matter, I also believe we need to focus less on the numbers and more on the attitudinal and behavioural issues preventing us from reaching the 30% goal. We need to work on getting women to the finish line of licensure, building up their engineering experience and onward to senior leadership. I’m hoping to pass the baton to the next generation of women leaders like the women in SWE Toronto to carry this issue over the finish line.
Have you ever felt like leaving engineering? Why? What made you stay?
HW: Oh yes, the very first time I walked onto a construction site, the site supervisor told me “you don’t belong here”. I had a really tough introduction to my career because I worked in such a male dominated and often times hostile work environment. There were virtually no other women, no one to look up to or to provide a safe sounding board. I would often ask myself, “why am I doing this to myself? There must be easier ways to make a living!” However, despite wanting to throw in the towel on many occasions, I loved working in the field and seeing how infrastructure was built. I thought it would make me a better engineer.
In fact, I ended up staying for several reasons: