Fitting women for the iron ring

In Features /

By Vanessa Thomas

The battles of today’s women are a far cry from the early obstacles of the women’s movement. Women of the late 1960s and early 1970s fought to have the same privileges, advantages and opportunities enjoyed by men — the right to vote, the right to divorce and also the right to job equity.

Today, it could be asserted that men and women are relatively equal. But the scarcity of women entering the technological industry is proof that they have a way to go yet.

Annie Jayakumar was shocked to realize there were only two other women compared to 80 men in her first engineering class at Ryerson.

“I felt odd in a sense,” the third-year electrical engineering student says. “It was as if I was out of place or that something was missing.” The Women in Engineering Committee at Ryerson is intent on removing that sensation. It hopes to use a big push by the Ontario government of double first year enrolment by the year 2000 to make sure a lot of those new engineering recruits are women. The provincial government is handing out $150 million over three years to help recruit new engineers into high-demand fields of engineering across Ontario.

Kim Glibride, chair of the Women in Engineering Committee, wants the university to use some of its share to recruit young women from high school, and build up the support for women in engineering at Ryerson. Until now, her committee’s projects were partially funded by Ryerson and 25 industrial companies that together paid about $60,000 a year. This helped pay for Ryerson’s summer engineering camp and its staff, activities, equipment and publicity. The committee is still waiting for a response to a request made in March to the office of the registrar for an additional $70,000.

The initiatives have made some headway so far — since 1991, Ryerson’s share of women in engineering has doubled from eight per cent to 16 per cent. Still, the school still lags behind the national standard according to the Canadian Council of Professional Engineers, which says that nationwide, about 19 per cent of the engineering students are women.

But the statistics don’t tell stories like Agnes Tedoldi’s; she has toughened up to handle what she calls “the male ego” of some of her classmates.

“I’ve learned to live with it,” says the third-year electrical engineering student. “I wouldn’t call it a problem, but some of the men think that just because I’m a girl I can’t do it [engineering] any better than them. Some are very helpful, but other think, ‘Oh, you’re a girl so the teacher’s gonna feel sorry for you, all you have to do is cry.’”

Nadine Gudz, coordinator of the Women in Engineering Project, provides personal advice to students like Tedoldi. Gudz has worked three days a week since being hired by the 15-member committee in February. A steady stream of students use phone calls, e-mails and office visits to room T122 to get academic and professional advice. Gilbride says if the committee is granted additional funding this September, it will hire Gudz full-time.

“It’s encouraging and refreshing for women to know there is support for women engineers and it (my office) hopefully promotes a feeling of non-isolation,” says Gudz, an environmental science graduate from the University of Guelph. “I’m a sounding board for different issues.”

Most of the inquiries Gudz gets are about Ryerson’s Discover Engineering summer camp. The Women in Engineering Committee first offered the camp at Ryerson in 1991 as a recruiting tool. So far the response has been phenomenal. 100 women who couldn’t squeeze into the camp last year are on a waiting list that will give them first preference this summer. At the end of the week, application packages will be mailed to 500 high schools in the Greater Toronto Area, seeking 150 young women in high school to attend five one-week camps in July and August this year. The camp will accept 30 high school students in grades 10 through OAC each week, at a cost of $80 per week.

“We want to make sure that women know that engineering is a career option,” said Gilbride. “Most boys are exposed to engineering, maybe because of the types of toys boys play with, but some girls just don’t know what it is, so the camp is there to let them know.”

At the camp, the young women experiment with various types of engineering by building pasta bridges, making electronic circuits, and construction photo-sized holograms. These sessions are mainly taught by female engineers.

Last year, Glibride, a chemical engineering professor, lead the “slime session” where students created a jelly-like substance for a fictitious toy company, and used chemical processes to produce slime of different colours and odours.

Aerospace engineering student Mahnaz Esmaeili would have been one of the first studetsn to apply to the camp if she had known about the program three years ago.

Esmaeili, who was a counsellor at the summer camp two years ago, says she fondly remembers inquisitive participants asking her to explain the program, describe how it felt to be in a class with a lot of boys and tell them whether the professors were approachable.

“They’re lucky because before I came to Ryerson I didn’t have a clue what aerospace was. I didn’t know the difference in (engineering) programs so I picked aerospace because the (description in the book) sounded good,” she says with a laugh. “Engineering is too damn hard, but I like it. I always did like math.”

For professors like Gilbride, engineering is more than the application of math. Engineering involves many different elements of everyday life from architecture to science and physics, says Gilbride.

Mehmet Zeytinoglu, computer and electrical engineering chair, agrees and feels that women need to be encouraged in thigh school to study post-secondary engineering.

“If you want to be admitted into engineering you need to take certain math courses, but if a student has not been taking those courses then they’re not eligible,” said Zeytinogly. “It’s not that women are not capable, but women can’t be considered without those courses. (High school) guidance counsellors need to catch these students and inform them before it’s too late that the engineering option is available to them.”

In September, the Women in Engineering Committee wants to develop a formalized recruitment campaign to appeal to women in high school not initially interested in pursuing an engineering career.

“Most of the applicants to the camp have some tweak of interest in engineering, so we need to target all women in high schools to get those students who haven’t thought about or haven’t been exposed to engineering,” says Gilbride.

By September the committee wants engineering teachers and students to visit high schools twice a month to recruit women. Gudz also plans to organize an information session day at Ryerson for high school students to attend with their parents and guidance counsellors, which will include panel discussions, campus tours and information about Ryerson’s engineering program.

Electrical engineering professor Magorzata Zywno has been sporadically visiting high schools to promote women in engineering for five years already. She is glad to see an effort to formalize the program, but says this requires more funding. Part of Zywno’s pitch is that Ryerson boasts one of the highest percentages of women in its engineering faculty across Canada. At 16 per cent, compared to the national average of seven per cent, Ryerson’s 25 women out of 152 faculty members make the program more attractive.

In 1990, Peter Hiscocks, an electrical engineering professor, initiated the Women in Engineering Committee after he realized the potential of his 10-year-old daughter to become an engineer.

“She once instructed grown men on how to maneuver a table through a door,” he says fondly. “I just thought ‘here’s a kid whose got some real talent.’ She was good at math, but at the time there were very few women engineers.”

“We have to be more proactive in our recruitment of women,” says Hiscocks, still a member of the committee. “We’re not against talking to guys, but by targeting women, we’re saying, ‘you can do it.’”

Hiscocks’ daughter is doing just that. She has since been accepted into two universities to take engineering in September.

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