The remedies suggested in many of these reports, moreover, relate to environment and infrastructure. In addition to better math and science education at the primary and public school levels, the creation of contexts for women in universities that are less tolerant of gender stereotyping behaviour and harassment and more conducive to learning and shared perceptions of professional standards, is a frequent refrain. At the same time, Canadian educators have become increasingly aware of gender issues in teaching and learning, particularly in the areas of mathematics and science. Both research and practice have identified differences in pedagogical techniques that disadvantage female students, as well as traditional assumptions about learning and career paths that inhibit many young women from proceeding into areas of pure and applied sciences.
All of which information has been integrated into a socio-economic framework by the recognition of our national need to educate more engineers if Canada is to maintain a viable position in the global economy of the next century. Whichever statistical projection one accepts, it is clear that the resources of 51 % of our population must be tapped if we are to increase the absolute number of practicing engineers. Given that the next century is less than a decade away, and that two decades of rhetorical awareness have not solved the problem, the time to identify and implement alternative solutions seemed to be at hand.
So, as a scholar and an academic administrator, I found myself in the following position. In an extensive mix of research, debate and criticism, the problem had been clearly identified. The solution-that is, increasing the participation of women in the profession- invited a number of approaches. Given the levels of activity and awareness, as well as the scope of possible response, it seemed logical to me to begin discussing whether there was an institutional link that might provide an additional solution to the problem.
My university has a singular commitment to the higher education of women which is supported by more than a century of practice. Teaching is informed by both theoretical and practical knowledge of the relationship of learning to gender issues. Research is generally oriented to matters relating to women's issues and the environment for learning has evolved as one dedicated to the success of women as both students and professionals. Sixty percent of the faculty and 85% of the students are women. Role models and mentors are a part of the traditional fabric of the university, not an institutional veneer.
It is a learning environment and approach that we know supports the needs and fosters the ongoing success of many women graduates. Certainly, it is a time-tested approach in the United States, where statistics indicate that the success of women who attended women's colleges is outstanding, particularly in the professional areas.
Our program proposal emerged in part because of a particular approach to undergraduate engineering education in our province. A student attends, for the first two years of the five-year program, at anyone of a number of affiliated universities. There is some elective course work in these two years, but curricular content is carefully laid out in accordance with accredited standards. Mathematics, chemistry, physics and basic engineering figure largely. The arrangement permits students to participate, for two years, in the ambience of a university of their choice while consolidating the knowledge base that will support further studies at a specialized engineering school.
Given these two existing themes--one of an approach to the education of women, the other of an inter-institutional arrangement for engineering programs--it seemed logical to suppose that the abilities and approaches of two institutions could be merged in the establishment of an affiliated program that would recruit women into the first phase, and prepare them for success at the second.
Accordingly a somewhat modest proposal, in which a class of thirty women from my own institution would be recruited into the affiliated engineering program, was formulated. The benefits of such a linkage proposal seemed obvious. A targeted recruitment plan would encourage women to pursue preliminary studies in engineering in an environment dedicated to their overall development as scholars and future professionals. It would also educate their parents, peers and guidance counselors to the possibilities of this study and career path.
The two-year experience at a university where the environment was predisposed to the education of women, with remedial and counselling services that would compensate for any gaps in their previous math and science learning, would serve to build confidence and adjust assumptions about the possibility of success in engineering. And the presence of a cohort of women who had shared this experience would provide a peer reference group for ongoing support during the subsequent years at the professional school.