For Dena McMartin, the path to becoming an engineer started with a passion for water. Since then, she has focused much of her work on finding solutions to water-related challenges for communities and society. The goal of working for the common good is at the core of the engineering profession, and Ms. McMartin, assistant vice-president, Research, University of Saskatchewan, hopes this will inspire more women to become engineers. The aim to increase the participation of women in engineering is reflected in Engineers Canada’s 30 by 30 initiative, which envisions raising the percentage of newly licensed engineers who are women to 30 per cent by the year 2030.
“I grew up in a small town adjacent to a highly saline water source,” says Ms. McMartin. In some years, depending on evaporation rates, Little Manitou Lake in Saskatchewan exceeds the water density levels of the Dead Sea in the Middle East, she explains. “The lake is associated with a lot of Indigenous ceremony as well as industry.”
Intrigued by water use challenges, Ms. McMartin decided to look for answers from an engineering perspective. “I loved that engineering is about problem-solving and that I could work on water,” she says. “I could improve water security for small communities like the one I grew up in.”
The scope of Ms. McMartin’s research encompasses rural water quality and quantity needs in Canada and abroad, impacts of climate extremes on water availability and rural livelihoods, and more. Tackling such complex issues requires teamwork, she says. “When I worked in communities on issues concerning climate change and water, those projects always included other team members like sociologists, geologists and geographers, hydrologists and public policy analysts, for example.”
Engineers bring a particular skill set to the table, and their ability to offer solutions can be enhanced by encouraging more diversity within their ranks, including women, people of colour and Indigenous people, says Ms. McMartin. “It’s important that engineering is reflective of the society around us.”
Engineers Canada’s 30 by 30 initiative aims for the particular goal of 30 per cent because it represents a widely accepted threshold for self-sustaining change, says Sarah Devereaux, partner at Dillion Consulting and Engineers Canada board director. “Other similar professional industries, such as lawyers and medical professionals, which have been traditionally male-dominated arenas, have seen increases in women’s participation. We are working to get engineering on a similar path.”
According to the last survey conducted by Engineers Canada, 2016 saw the highest proportion of women in engineering undergraduate programs ever registered in Canada, says Ms. Devereaux. “For the first time since 2001, female undergraduate enrolment broke the 20 per cent barrier in 2016, with a 0.8 percentage point increase from 19.9 per cent to 20.7 per cent. This trend is likely going to continue.”
This push toward a higher percentage of women in engineering is supported by regulators, universities and partners like Engineers Without Borders, says Ms. Devereaux. “Since our mandate is to protect the public, we need to hear from women to not only get their view on the problems, but also their suggestions on how to solve them.”
“This is not a women’s issue,” says Ms. McMartin. “It is a shared responsibility to encourage young women and ensure our workplaces are open and supportive. We can’t succeed without the support of our male colleagues.” Nevertheless, women engineers play a central role in changing the culture, she adds.
“Many young women in engineering are real advocates and champions for the profession,” says Ms. McMartin. “They mentor young women, volunteer on professional associations, run for elected office and take leadership roles in their places of work. It is encouraging to see this level of confidence and passion in the next generation of engineers.”
Both Ms. Devereaux and Ms. McMartin play active parts in that movement. They are 30 by 30 champions and serve on professional associations and committees. Their engagement comes from the conviction that diverse teams will make the engineering profession stronger. Ms. Devereaux explains, “When we have different perspectives and opinions, we can be more innovative and creative, which will lead to better solutions.”
Ms. McMartin is excited about the prospect of seeing how increased women’s participation will shape the field. She is expecting changes to how problems are approached and solutions designed, and a strong focus on the social aspects of engineering.
“Engineering is a caring profession that has tremendous impact on society, the environment and international issues,” she says. In addition, engineers typically love the challenge to think outside the box and find solutions that range from designing new bridges, fuels or medical equipment to helping communities become less vulnerable to climate change.
“We want to help people see engineering for what it is: fun, making a difference and a profession for everyone,” says Ms. McMartin.
Did you know
1. 2016 had the highest proportion of females in undergraduate programs ever registered by Engineers Canada.
2. Out of the 14,905 undergraduate degrees awarded in 2016, 2,882 (19.3%) were awarded to female students.
3. The proportion of females enrolled in master’s degrees broke its previous record, reaching 25.3% in 2016.
4. For the fourth year in a row, Newfoundland and Labrador had the highest percentage of female undergrads (26.9%).
5. 1,665 (25.5%) master’s degrees and 366 (23.7%) doctoral degrees were awarded to females in 2016.