The Strange History of a Good Idea
by Kathryn Bindon
What follows is a personal account of an attempt to establish a new engineering program in one Canadian university. While the institutions and parties involved are not named, some of the singular circumstances mentioned will undoubtedly indicate their identities. I Nevertheless, what follows is a scholar's statement, not an institutional brief.
There is nothing unusual or provocative about the creation of new courses and programs in universities. Moreover, there is a relatively routine process that is followed in these manners, which resembles the basic research methodology of most disciplines. The question under discussion in this case was how the numbers of women studying engineering, and remaining in the field as both practitioners and teachers, might be increased.
Despite tremendous growth in their participation in tertiary education during the past decade, there has been no concomitant increase in engineering programs. While it is fair to note that "The share of degrees earned by women [in mathematics/physical sciences and engineering/applied sciences] ... has ... more than doubled between 1970 and 1988, from 8% to 19% of the total," the numbers remain relatively static in comparison to the increase in overall numbers of graduates (1). In 1988, 54% of graduates from undergraduate programs in Canadian universities were female; only 7% of graduates in engineering and applied science were women (2). These statistical conclusions, which have been remarkably consistent for the past two decades, have prompted a number of studies and inquiries into the matter of the participation, graduation and attrition of women in the profession.
Many of these studies identified environmental factors within schools of engineering as contributing to low female enrolments and ongoing involvement. These findings have been underscored by public debate about the life-style of engineering students. Everything from the content of student newspapers through the rituals of orientation and graduation have been critically scrutinized' and the low participation rate of women has been cast against these analyses.