Opinion: Why, as a woman engineer, I left the profession

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The Order of the White Rose, given to keep the ambitions alive of the 14 women killed at École Polytechnique on Dec. 6, 1989, was awarded this year to Zhouhang Amelia Dai. Her accomplishments are impressive, and I wish her all the best in her engineering career. I also wish there was more public conversation about women’s everyday experiences in the engineering profession.

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As a woman who was studying mechanical engineering at McGill University in 1989, I’ll never forget that wintry Dec. 6 evening. There was little time to process the horrific event since, as I recall, I had a solid mechanics final the next day. In the days that followed, at 22 years old, I was confused as to why the public conversation was about gun control and not about women in engineering.

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I pressed on in my exams, my degree and in my engineering career, thinking that engineering was gender neutral. (Sure, there were individuals who made sexist comments, but they were the exception.) Years later, I was untroubled to leave engineering since my career had not met my expectations. I went to graduate school and eventually focused my doctoral studies on women in engineering. Only after conducting my research did I begin to clearly see the systemic issues that led to my exit from the profession.

Today, despite the tremendous effort to attract and retain women in engineering since that dark day 34 years ago, women in Canada make up fewer than 25 per cent of engineering graduates and 15 per cent of practising engineers (a number that reflects their “token” status).

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Once practising in the field, women experience more burnout than their male colleagues and leave the profession at a higher rate, studies show. As we praise women engineers publicly for their accomplishments, we seem to still wonder why engineering has not reached gender parity as have other professions.

As much as I think Dai and others are worthy of recognition, I wonder how such public praise, absent of the daily context that women in engineering live, helps maintain the status quo. Pointing out so publicly how exceptional woman engineers are succeeding is presumably intended to convey that every woman is capable, which, to this woman, is painfully obvious. Of course, women are capable. Of course, women have a place in engineering. However, absent the ordinary stories of the women who experience burnout, who leave the profession, or who shift into less technical, “pink-collar” engineering jobs, women engineers might wonder alone, what’s wrong with me?

In a recent study conducted by the Order of Engineers of Quebec, it was found that women engineers experience three times more discrimination than women in the general public. These and other statistics, along with my own research, suggest there are countless stories of women who cope silently in an environment where they are reminded that it is not “normal” to be a women. My research suggests that women engineers (and especially those with intersectional experiences) swim in a sea of daily microaggressions that are often barely perceptible even to them because they have learned to navigate them so skilfully. However, when they exhaust their coping mechanisms or find themselves in more threatening territory, they may silently leave the profession. Many, not recognizing their inhospitable environment, possibly because it doesn’t make the headlines, leave while wondering if they are the problem.

What if, for every article highlighting a woman engineer’s success, we saw headlines reflecting women engineers’ daily experiences, such as those inspired by my research:

“Another woman’s disturbing story of why she left engineering”

“Women engineers’ performance drops due to undiscussable systemic marginalization”

“Psychological abuse, sexualization and belittling continue to be experienced by women in engineering”

How might a more balanced public conversation make a difference for women in engineering, as it might have in 1989?

Ann-Louise Howard is an assistant professor at Concordia University in the department of applied human sciences. She has a bachelor of engineering from McGill University and a PhD from Concordia. The focus of her doctoral thesis was women in engineering and their experiences in the workplace. She lives in Beaconsfield.

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