The young women at the helm of Women in Engineering have a major goal for the year: increase belonging.
Maddy Gander and Fernanda Pereira are laser-focused on building a supportive community for women in a male-dominated degree, a mission that’s motivated the two engineering students since they arrived at Western.
The co-presidents of Women in Engineering are proud of the strides their club has made since its creation in 1989.
“There is still a lot of work to be done. We hope to advocate for that and drive change,” said Pereira, a fourth-year student pursuing a dual degree in chemical and biomedical engineering.
“We want to create opportunities for female students to grow and foster relationships within the Western community.”
The two student leaders recognize the barriers and the efforts still needed to fight for current, past and future students who hope to become engineers – and even young women who don’t yet know it’s an option.
Students entering Western Engineering will feel the push to build a supportive community, just as Gander and Pereira did. Both joined the Women in Engineering mentorship program as first-years, becoming “Little Sisters” matched to upper-year “Big Sisters,” matches that instill a sense of belonging in new students and expose members to other initiatives of the club at the same time.
By the following year, both had transitioned into Big Sisters and sought executive roles to take on leadership duties for Women in Engineering.
“The environment is so positive, and it’s really important to have a comfortable and safe place for women to connect with other women. It helps to combat the imposter syndrome,” Gander said. She’s in her third year at Western, working toward a dual degree in software engineering and business administration.
The Women in Engineering club runs events – bringing in CEOs and other industry leaders – provides peer-to-peer assistance, connects students with Western Engineering grads to build networks, and offers school, career and real-world advice through social media campaigns and even its own podcast.
Next week Western Engineering will host the annual Lynda Shaw Memorial Lecture, named for the third-year mechanical engineering student who was murdered near Highway 401 while on her way back to school in 1990.
This year’s speaker is healthcare leader Rebecca McKillican, BESc/HBA’03, a former CEO at McKesson Canada, where she led the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines among the company’s network of pharmacies.
Much of the club’s work focuses not just on current students, but on recruiting potential new students. It means targeting young women before they make the decisions that carve out their educational or career paths.
Club members volunteer with STEM camps covering engineering and coding basics for girls and attend more formal recruitment and outreach events to help engage elementary and secondary students.
“We only have so many people that can apply to engineering because a lot of girls aren’t taking physics in high school,” Gander said. “We want to be sure they’re encouraged to consider it as a career early on.”
That’s where fun activities – like using breadboards to create and test simple circuits to demonstrate engineering concepts – come in.
“It’s good that they can see how engaging engineering can be; we actually put it in their hands, not just advocate for physics,” Pereira added.
She recalled being one of just two young women in her high school physics class. It did little to boost her confidence.
“I hated everything about physics in that class. I was pretty terrified to go into engineering,” she admitted.
Fast forward a few years, she’s not only a mentor to younger students, but a club president setting the stage for generations of future engineers.
“My hope for elementary to high school students is they continuously have these representatives in engineering and have that confidence in themselves,” Pereira said.
Gander and Pereira agree they’ve both had overwhelmingly positive experiences through the Faculty of Engineering.
They also know it’s not the experience for everyone.
“There is overt or explicit bias or discrimination, but a lot is more subtle,” Gander said. “The person beside me might not even recognize that what someone just said is extremely insulting.”
Part of the work to aggressively push for equity, in and out of the classroom, means engaging the entire faculty – including their male peers.
“They’re important to creating a supportive environment and driving equity,” Gander said.
Clearly, the club and its executives are making a difference.
Attendance at this year’s Dec. 6 memorial, paying tribute to the 14 victims of the 1989 École Polytechnique massacre, tripled over the last in-person event, and included a sizeable audience of male students.
The co-presidents are making their best efforts to create lasting change.
“Women deserve a place in engineering. That’s our driving force, to make that sense of belonging and community,” Gander said.