Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Engineering Physics and its women

You've heard the stereotypes, and dismissed them as unfair, wrong, and outdated: engineers are chauvinistic egoists with iron rings on their pinkies; they're an old-boys club and Mensa wrapped up into one; they look down upon women.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.