Remember 30: Replacing bias with balance

Editor’s note: This is one of a series of pieces commemorating the 30th anniversary of the École Polytechnique murders. Read other Western community members’ reflections on the lessons that still echo – and even on those lessons still ignored – three decades out from that tragic day.

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On Dec. 6, 1989, I was in my first year working in a consulting engineering firm after university. It was an especially demanding time in my life, and frankly, I do not recall the event being discussed at my office at all, probably because out of about 100 staff, there was only one other female engineer in the firm.

After coming from a university environment that was very inclusive, I found myself working in one that was not. So my memory is that of feeling quite isolated and working very hard to fit in and survive.

I was horrified about the shootings, and felt such sadness for the women who lost their lives simply for pursuing an education – the same one I had pursued.

Although this was one very troubled person’s action, it shone a light on the fact there were very few women in the engineering profession and very few women attracted to it at that time. I knew I had to do something to show women engineering is a profession that should be available to them and encouraged as a wonderful career option.

I have worked towards that ever since, both within my firm, and as a volunteer.

My mother and father always encouraged me and my sister to pursue whatever career we dreamed of – even if that meant a career that was not traditionally female. In fact, being a woman wanting to pursue a dominantly male field was never even discussed in our household. And I found an incredibly inclusive and supportive environment at Western Engineering, despite the fact there were very few women in the faculty at the time.

Some progress has been made. Women are definitely more accepted now. The barriers that come by virtue of so few women being in the field are slowly lifting as, thankfully, the number of women in engineering increases – yet ever so slowly.

Today, only 13 per cent of the 295,000 professional engineers in Canada are women. A workplace that has a minority of women is an inherently difficult place for a woman to thrive. Respected studies have shown that up to 50 per cent of women are driven out of companies and the engineering field altogether, due in no small part to a culture which is not always as accepting as it should be.

The way to begin to change this is to openly acknowledge these cultural challenges exist.

When I was President of Engineers Canada, we adopted an audacious goal of ‘30 by 30’ – 30 per cent of professional engineers obtaining licenses will be women in 2030. This goal has been adopted by all regulatory bodies across Canada, and the profession across the country is working very hard on many fronts to bring this goal to a reality.

In the meantime, firms can revise policies to eliminate bias that negatively impacts women, institute part-time positions so women can continue to develop their careers during child-rearing years, provide flexible work hours, and be mindful in how they recognize, reward, respect and support women.

Many studies have shown that having a balance between the number of men and women in engineering leads to superior performance on many fronts. As men and women can have quite different points of view about issues, this balance in our field will also lead to more balanced and socially conscious solutions to real-world problems.

Catherine Karakatsanis, BESc’83, MESc’91, is a Professional Engineer and the COO and Director at Morrison Hershfield Group Inc. and a member of the Board of Governors at Western.