By Vanessa Farquharson
Engineering professor Peter Hiscocks will receive a high-profile citizenship award from the Professional Engineers of Ontario next month for his work fighting harassment and supporting women in his field.
Hiscocks is proud of the work Ryerson has done to promote female engineers. But while the numbers have improved dramatically over the past decade, some attitude problems persist.
“Male engineers worked very hard to make an image for themselves as a bunch of thugs and hoodlums and they were successful; it was a very effective PR campaign,” said Hiscocks.
Although the percentage of women in engineering has more than doubled over the last 10 years, four out of five engineering students on campus are male.
“We’re not expecting to snap our fingers and have 50 per cent women,” said Lisa Anderson, head of Ryerson’s Women in Engineering committee. “We consider 30 per cent enough to make a critical difference.”
The nationwide standard in every other discipline- including previously male dominated business, law and medicine – is to keep the gender balance as close to 50-50 as possible.
Hiscocks thinks absolute equality in the faculty is achievable, but not in the near future.
“Engineering at its professional ranks is still only five to six percent female, while other professions are mostly equal,” he said.
At a recent Ryerson Board of Governors meeting, professor Michael Doucet raised the question of gender equity hiring in engineering. Before the latest round of hiring only six of 74 new positions were filled by women.
“We’ve met all our objectives in engineering,” said university President Claude Lajeunesse. “It’s very difficult to attract women to engineering. Ryerson is at the leading edge of doing this through various programs.
“If you look at the overall university, over 40 per cent of the new hires this year have been women, and I’m very proud of that,” Lajeunesse said.
Ryerson’s Women in Engineering committee has hosted conferences and provided counselling to support women engineers, but persistent stereotypes remain an obstacle.
“The trouble is that most people see a mechanical engineer as someone who just fixes cars,” said Anderson. “When we tell high school students about mechanical engineers designing a wheelchair or artificial limb, then they start to see the social connection.”
The social connection is what drew Anna Sarr to Ryerson’s aerospace engineering program.
“I like working as part of a team,” said Sarr. “Who wants to sit in front of a computer on their own all day?”
Female students make up just 14 percent of this program, but Sarr says she feels she is treated equally.
While mainly female students comprise Ryerson’s engineering student council, Ryerson’s engineering publication, the Golden Ram, includes a section called “Whoroscope” and photo captions such as “There’s more disease here then [sic] in one U of T girl.”
When asked if she found any of this offensive, Sarr said, “No, they’re just being funny.”
In 1989 an anti-date rape campaign was mocked by engineering students at Queen’s University. The students countered the “No Means No” slogan with signs saying, “No Means More Beer,” and “No Means Kick Her In The Teeth.”
A few months later Marc Lepine murdered 14 women engineers at l’Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal.
“That shook everybody badly,” said Hisocks. “But from then on the climate for women in engineering changed dramatically. “Right now it’s not perfect but it’s a hell of a lot better than it was. I think we’re on a good path.”