On Our Radar – Glass ceiling more visible, but it’s still glass

On Our Radar features HEQCO staff and guest bloggers offering their unique perspectives on trends, new ideas, and hot-button issues in higher education. The opinions are those of the authors.

With March bringing us both International Women’s Day and National Engineering month, the temptation to reflect on the state of women in engineering is practically and shamelessly obvious. Living in a nation that embraces the notion of mass education, women have responded by outpacing men in overall PSE enrolments but not across all fields of study. In 2011, women on average comprised 18% of undergraduate engineering enrolments in Canada, a figure that has mostly flat-lined and appears to resist recitation from the ‘high’ of about 20% a few years back.

Why the disproportionate disinterest among women to pursue engineering? What can we (government, institutions, parents, industry associations, Mattel) do about it? Have we done enough, and if so has the infamous glass ceiling been shattered? Can women freely step through towards their fields of choice?

The problem with invisible barriers is that they are (sort of) like laser beams (think Catherine Zeta Jones in Entrapment): you only know you’ve come across one once you’ve tripped it, unexpectedly sounding the alarm and freezing you in place. Outside of Hollywood, our best versions of laser beam visualizer spray (this stuff actually exists) are those initiatives and studies that continue to investigate the possibility of gender barriers and their solutions. In addition to National Engineering Month, other noteworthy initiatives include Women in Scholarship, Engineering, Science and Technology; Discover Engineering; the Canadian Association for Girls in Science; Engineering Access Program; Native Access to Engineering; Go Tech Girl; and Hydro One’s Women in Engineering University Partnership. Simply shrugging off the stagnating participation rate opens the possibility that barriers and beams go unchecked until tripped.

Other traditionally male-dominated work settings have slightly shifted in their gender imbalance. A short while ago in Census years, the fields of law and medicine were primarily male terrain. From 1986 to 2006, the proportion of female lawyers and physicians increased by approximately 17% and 14% respectively; the increase for engineering occupations was about 6%. (For a chicken-or-egg brain teaser consider that “Surgeon Barbie” launched in 1973 whereas “Computer Engineer Barbie” launched only in 2010.) Are women simply opting out of a career that reportedly offers some of the best paying jobs?

Keeping in mind that women make up a diverse group, past research suggests a few potential reasons that may influence whether or not women pursue a career in engineering or technology:

  • lack of role models (Marissa Mayer can only do so much);
  • lack of knowledge (there will likely not be an engineering spinoff to the television show ER and while National Engineering Month is “Canada’s biggest celebration of engineering” less than 10% of females in traditional high school settings were aware of the initiative, according to one study);
  • negative perceptions of engineering (it involves mostly calculators, cubicles and hard hats);
  • the alienating and consequently self-perpetuating male-to-female ratio (some young women report not wanting to be in a workplace full of men);
  • gender bias in the curriculum (why can’t toolboxes be pink and does it really matter?);
  • parental support (never mind additional research suggesting that parents of female engineers tend to be more educated than the parents of male engineers);
  • and the perception that engineering doesn’t help people or make a difference (even though there has been a positioning shift toward engineering as touching lives in a variety of important ways).


But what are women and men actually saying about engineering as a career choice? A 2010 Survey of Working Conditions for Engineers provides a follow-up to the 1994 survey and reveals that the majority of women and men are quite satisfied with engineering as a profession. The survey found slight improvements in workplace conditions for women although challenges such as opportunities for assignments, promotion and perceived consequences for leaves of absence persist. Of course, engineering is not alone. When it comes to earnings – the male-female wage gap persists across the board.  Even though there are more women now in high-wage occupations it is in the upper wage brackets where the gap looms largest. So perhaps we are getting better at navigating those invisible beams and barriers but they are still all around us.


Sonya Tomas, Research Analyst

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