Ryerson scholars: Canada must work harder to provide women in academic engineering more resources

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By Ivana Vidakovic

Opportunities to excel in academia must be more accessible for women in engineering, said panellists at a Ryerson Women in Engineering (WiE) event.

The panel, Excelling in Academia: The Women of Ryerson Engineering, was held on March 11 with speakers Dafna Sussman, Habiba Bougherara and Hadis Zarrin, all professors in the Faculty of Engineering and Architectural Sciences (FEAS). 

According to Engineers Canada, only 13 per cent of licensed engineers in Canada are women. As mentioned by the speakers, the absence of women in the field is apparent when looking at the FEAS’ choices for Tier 2 Canada Research Chairs (CRC).

CRC Tier 2 positions are awarded to exemplary emerging researchers. For each Tier 2 chair, the post-secondary institution where they conduct their research receives $100,000 annually for a five year tenable position, renewable once. Since 2017, only one woman has been chosen at Ryerson in FEAS to occupy the Tier 2 position. 

Sussman, an assistant professor of biomedical sciences, spoke about the repercussions of this choice during the panel. “CRC Tier 2 gives you a lot in terms of starting your career and if you only give it to men, then guess what? They’re going to be ahead,” she said.

“I’m sure that if we provide women with opportunities in engineering, they will do miracles”

Positions such as CRC Tier 2 give researchers the resources needed to pursue topics that could make a difference in the country. Sharareh Taghipour, the only woman in the FEAS currently occupying a CRC Tier 2 position, is working on greenhouse gas emission reduction in industries such as commercial building, heavy manufacturing and transportation. 

From the program’s establishment in 2000 until 2017, no women were chosen for a Tier 2 position. “If you have a certain number of CRC positions, you need to set aside half for females. Simple as that. And if you don’t, how are you promoting female faculty members?” Sussman said.

When it comes to Ryerson and the level of support provided to faculty members, the panellists said they were more likely to be given resources and support when explicitly asking for them.

“As women, [we] don’t usually ask. I saw my male colleagues, if they want something, they go to the dean and they ask,” sad Bougherara, a mechanical engineering professor. “But for us [women], we just ask once and that’s it…My advice to you, particularly women, or even men if you’re shy, [is] there is nothing wrong to ask for help or ask for some tools.”

Bougherara also talked about the power of giving women resources and support. “I’m sure that if we provide women with opportunities in engineering, they will do miracles,” she said.

The panellists spoke on their decision to leave the industry behind and commence a career in academia and research, citing two main reasons for switching: the freedom to pursue research they are passionate about and the escape from the standard eight-hour work day. 

“I’m not a fan of being obliged to work nine to five,” said Zarrin. “Especially being a mom, that makes it really hard for you…the flexibility and freedom of time management, especially in academia was of great interest to me.

“It is not easy to clash with the ‘old boys club’ but we got to do what we got to do”

Having children and taking maternity leave was another barrier discussed by the panellists. 

“I can tell you that I’ve had a couple of grant applications, where I got feedback saying, ‘Oh but you took maternity leave’ as a negative comment and something that affected the scoring of my application,” said Sussman. “Or, ‘Oh she wasn’t as productive in year X’, but there’s only so much you can do while breastfeeding an infant.” 

Zarrin, an assistant professor of chemical engineering, spoke about the mental pressure of giving birth while also occupying a position in academia. “One of the challenges in academia was those insecurities,” she said. “Like how will having a baby affect your future job?”

According to the Canadian Human Rights Commission, the COVID-19 pandemic is having a disproportionately large impact on the employment of women, especially those with children. 

Sussman said the university faculty and administration supported her when she was in need of help during the transition to online learning. They acknowledged the potential struggle of teaching at home while also taking care of a toddler. 

“The communication is very responsive at Ryerson; if you do share what are your needs, what are your challenges, even what are your plans, there are always people that will help you out or give you the support,” said Zarrin. 

Although the panel discussed several obstacles that women in engineering research still face, they also discussed potential solutions.

“What we can do to solve this issue is to get more women in [judging] committees and to advocate for them. It is not easy to clash with the ‘old boys club’ but we got to do what we got to do,” said Bougherara. 

Naureen Kaur, second-year computer engineering student and panel host, spoke about the importance of having an event specifically highlighting women-engineers in academia outside of an organizational capacity.

“We have a lot of engineering related and STEM related groups on campus but I’ve never seen anyone highlight the accomplishments of people in academia,” she said. “I wanted to also inspire other women in engineering to understand that industry is not the only career that they can follow.”

Zulfa Varvani, a second-year biomedical engineering student, similarly noted the importance of the event.

“Seeing someone I can relate to, someone who is of colour and woman-identifying – it gives me more confidence,” she said. “These are people I can take as role models now and as a student, that’s really important.”

Bougherara’s final advice was “there is nothing wrong with trying a few paths. If it doesn’t work, you can always go back. Always follow what you like. When you have so much passion for something, I am 100 per cent sure you will excel.”

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