You’ve heard the stereotypes, and dismissed them as unfair, wrong, and outdated: engineers are chauvinistic egoists with iron rings on their pinkies; they’re an old-boys club and Mensa wrapped up into one; they look down upon women. I dismiss these stereotypes also. I know plenty of engineers that are charming, decent, gentle, open individuals. But something lingers in this faculty that continues to create discomfort for some women students – this “something” has mostly to do with being outnumbered and isolated in certain programs. But it also has to do with an unwillingness (of both men and women) to acknowledge or participate in issues specific to women.

It isn’t that there is systematic discrimination – there isn’t. Moreover, certain engineering departments like CHBE (chemical, environmental, and biological engineering) and Civil, have a large proportion of female students. Engineering Physics though has barely 8-10 percent female participation most years. That’s only about 4 to 5 women a cycle. According to Nancy Lui and Anja Lanz, two Engineering Physics students, it was feelings of isolation that made them want some sort of resource for women. Being constantly surrounded by men in extreme long hours of school and lab can be overwhelming and taxing, they said.

Anja felt it was important to have a formal women’s representative, or point-person, to both share information relevant to women in engineering and be an interface with departments, student societies, and outside organizations on behalf of women in Engineering Physics (and other disciplines where courses overlap). Some activities relevant to women in engineering do exist: NEW @UBC (Networking Engineering Women at UBC), a faculty-wide organization of faculty, graduate students, and undergrads, has regular speaker series and other events pertaining to supporting and creating networks between women in engineering. But within the program, there was no way to communicate these events to the women. The need exists, says Anja: in information-sharing, taking sensitive complaints, and creating a supportive social network.

To this end, Anja initiated a meeting with the women of engineering physics and their program director, Dr. Andre Marziali. The meeting was to discuss the feelings of the students and the possible creation of a women’s group or representative. It was agreed to create an official Female Student Liaison to the department. The goals were threefold: outreach to the community to encourage female enrollment, liaising with the department in cases of concerns or complaints, and communicating with the women in the program about relevant information like scholarships, events, speakers, and so on. “Dr. Marziali has been very supportive,” says Anja. With the creation of the Female Student Liaison position to the department, there has been funding as well. Anja and Dr. Marziali applied for a grant from the Jade Project and got it both this year and last year. The Jade Project is a government-funded agency that allocates grants to innovative projects that “break stereotypes, and increase the number of girls and women who can change the future through their participation as scientists and engineers.” Interestingly, due to some concerns expressed to the apointee who will be taking over the position in September, there is now discussion of changing the name of the position (though not its functions) to something that does not explicitly mention women or “female”.

By contrast, the idea of a women’s representative was not so well received when Lanz proposed the idea to the EngPhys council last year. The description she presented, similarly to the one agreed to by Dr. Marziali, included outreach activities aimed at highschool students. Moreover, she proposed another goal for the position: to organize social events for women in EngPhys program. Neither of these goals sat well with the council. The former was was deemed beyond the jurisdiction and purpose of the society, which is to serve current students. The council was also uncomfortable with the latter, preferring that women’s social events be “spontaneous” rather than deliberately organized by a councilor. However, they did agree to accept the position for a trial period, without the outreach or social event clauses, and without voting power. In the second term, the outreach goal was restored. However, this year, when the trial period ended, they decided not to renew the position.

Anja, ever persistent, in January 2006, presented to the EUS with another student on the topic of creating women’s representative on that council. The position, to be named the “women in engineering representative” was similar to the former suggestions. The goals were to –
1.Contact person for women engineering students
2.Liaison between the EUS and groups concerned to women in engineering
3.Advocate issues on behalf of women engineering students
The EUS has issues with the name, preferring something along the lines of “gender equality” rather than “women in engineering”. This sensitivity aside, support was not particulary strong. When council went out on their retreat and matters were delayed, the proposal got buried without a vote. “I think it has a place there [in the EUS]” says Lanz, ” and there is interest out there, with the women. But somebody needs to take it on, and I just don’t have time.”

While some women are supportive of the the ideas that were proposed (and eventually accepted by the Eng Phys department), and would like to see social events for women as well, others have a different perspective. Women students in Eng Phys have expressed apprehension about being “singled out,” “treated specially,” or “percieved as weak”, and thus been ambivalent, unsupportive, and most importantly, uninterested in participating. “I understand them,” says Anja Lanz, “but I still think it’s a good thing.”

We like to think that our university is open, ungrudging, and progressive. But the responses of the engphys council and EUS have uncovered a confusion on the topic of minority support. This seems to arise from insecurity, lack of leadership, and plain disinterest more than malice, perhaps. Still though, in the university’s most male-dominated faculty, even many of the enrolled women have managed to convince themselves that the only way to exist is to blend in. Instead of reconstituting, women are accepting. Instead of creating, women are conforming. Going bowling with the girls, or organizing a talk with a successful woman graduate are not activities that anyone should be ashamed, or afraid of.

Lets remember: many graduates of UBC engineering can look forward to jobs in hydro, technology, and construction companies. In world where an industry leader like Power Tech (a subsidiary of BC Hydro) has no women employed in entire departments except for clerical staff, holds its annual general meetings in a strip club, and undertakes a popular vote on the basis of looks to hire its female secretaries, there is much to be desired in the realm of a dignified work environment for women. I am not joking about the above example. UBC in fact places co-op students at this particular workplace habitually – one such lucky young man gleefully recounted these tales of medieval antics to a trusted friend. The fact that industry is male-dominated and chauvinistic sets a depressing example for young interns. It creates a tone that transcends specific companies and filters throughout the industry and into the training grounds – our university. So here at UBC, the place that should be the safest and most supportive, women engineering students end up feeling isolated, scrutinized, and constantly apprehensive of any sort of “singling out”.

In the end, it is up to them.


4 Comments so far

  1. Bowinn on May 16, 2007 5:52 am

    Whoops, accidentally deleted. Here it is again:

    It was during my first year on the EUS Council when this topic of discussion came up.

    I’d like to confirm that the strongest opposition for the creation of this position within the Council came from a woman who, like the article pointed out, believed that creating a position to support women undermined women who struggled to present themselves as someone who was as strong, if not stronger, than…well, men.

    The idea of the “gender equity” position was actually received far better than the idea of a “women in engineering” representative.

    Women-only events also caused a lot of concern because all EUS sponsored events were to be open to all students, and the women-only events were meant to be exclusive.

    Please note that we support the NCWIE (National Conference on Women in Engineering) and subsidize students who wish to attend–but we send both male and female applicants (on the basis of their application and not gender).

    It is true that the industry is not as progressive as we would like it to be, however…okay…this next part is going to be pretty blunt:

    The argument was basically between which method of integrating women was better, and please understand that I am not arguing for either one…just trying to recap what I remember was being thrown around when I was still a young Councillor:

    a) Show that women are no different than men and that they are just as valuable and easy-going, etc in the workplace.

    b) Essentially…well… “whine” women into the industry with special treatment and potentially creating animosity in the workplace when they get there.

  2. Bowinn on May 16, 2007 5:54 am

    Great article, btw.

  3. Maayan Kreitzman on May 16, 2007 7:12 am

    Thanks for the comments Bowinn. But I think the dichotomy you present is false. I don’t think having support for women is incompatible with proving that women are “easygoing” or “strong”. Moreover, arguing about the semantics of a position has limited value. The real point here is that, at least in certain departments, women are still very outnumbered, and sometimes feel isolated and lacking in support. These women should not be hampered in their attempts to both support each other and officially register concerns, should they exist. Nor should anyone be afraid of calling things as they are. Women will inevitably have certain concerns and priorities that differ (in some scopes) from those of men, and explicitly adressing those isn’t in any way an act of surrender. Cloaking matters in ambiguous language is just silly. The suggestion that explicitly acknowledging issues is tantamout to “whining,” is particularly strange.
    Now, in departments where proportions are more reasonable, the tension is lesser – by their simple presence, women shape the manner in which social and professional interactions take place. And that;s a good thing. Over and over again we’ve seen data suggesting that diverse environments are more productive and profitable both intellectually and in business. So good on those departments.
    But what about engineering physics? What about Power Tech?Until women have significantly higer levels of enrollment, faculty positions, and power in industry, in areas where they are currently highly outnumbered, there will be isolation, scrutinization, and the notion of “women must be even better than men”. Those realities should betaken on and minimized. If social gatherings and information-sharing help do that, why the heck not?
    Maybe the differences between departments mean that the EUS as a central body isn’t the most appropriate place for a women’s issues person to be located – I have no idea.
    Mostly though, I’m just not sure what everyone seems so terrified about.

  4. Nancy on May 17, 2007 6:35 am

    Great article. Thanks both of you for this eye-opening discussion.

    Here are my thoughts:
    Engineering has in the past been, and I suppose still is, a male dominated discipline, and as such it is steeped in male tradition. I am all for tradition, but sometimes traditions hold us back from moving on to newer, better things. Women do struggle to present themselves as strong, resilient individuals in order to stand up to male-set standards. I for one am not very strong and I don’t drink a lot of beer, but that doesn’t make me any less of an Engineer. We need to set our own standards and make our own traditions. My overall thought through all of this is that the onus is on us to make the world a better place for those who follow in our footsteps, and it shouldn’t be taken lightly. In the end it’s worth it! Case in point: after advertising the existence of the women’s representative in Engineering Physics during its trial period, twice the number of women entered the program than in previous years. It’s a shame the position wasn’t renewed.

    Having said that, I would like to express my disappointment in some of the males involved. Specifically, when I brought up women’s issues with two males involved in the Engineering Physics student council, they both responded by saying that since they were men, they could not relate to women. Every reason they gave for nullifying the women’s position was petty and not thouroughly thought out. One of the males told me that he didn’t even think I should be talking to him about these issues. I understand that they didn’t want to upset anyone, but they also weren’t doing what was in the best interest of our student population.

    Having a “gender equity” position rather than a “women in engineering” position tries to draw the focus away from women and towards gender, but it misses the point because women in Engineering who feel isolated are looking for a support network of sorts. Gender equity implies having a person policing the activities of the EUS, enforcing equal treatment; it does not specifically address any kind of social networking.

    As for the exclusion of males, it is partially due to our sources of funding. The Jade Project has strict guidlines for activities that they choose to subsidize. Perhaps it is true that we should hold events geared towards women, but not exclusive to women. As well, in proposing the Engineering Physics women’s representative, we informed the everyone of the intensions for the position and encouraged feedback from the males as well, so they weren’t left out of the process.

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