Most intriguing, however, are the arguments against this proposal that suggest that women who enroll in the existing affiliated programs will choose to attend the targeted program. One possible response to this criticism is to argue that the need for gender specific introductory experiences is rather more pressing than we perceive. In all of this, the criticisms miss the essential point of the proposal--that is, that the net pool of female candidates, and thus of possible professionals, will be increased through its implementation.
It is difficult to understand why one solution, based upon both research and practice but proposed in the recognition that there must be a number of approaches to engineering education attempted during the next decade, must be vilified simply because it is gender specific. That, it seems to me, is at the core of the problem, and evidences an attitude that has implications far beyond the particular instance of engineering education.
The idea of engineering, or affiliated programs, targeted for women, is not a new one. It has been tested successfully in France, the U.K. and the United States. There is no implication of a loss of rigour, or of an academic program that would not meet the standards of the profession. The unique feature of the proposal is that the experience would provide for women, who are less sure of their abilities, an opportunity to test and strengthen their commitment to pursuing the profession of engineering. For those who are not "fast trackers" on route to the profession, there would be an additional educational stage in which to test their knowledge base and their personal inclinations. This foundation of confidence has, in other professions, proved to be a salient element of retention and achievement.
How do I summarize the experience? It is difficult to understand the intolerant reception this proposal has received, particularly in light of the general perception of the problem. If the attack had been on the core engineering program, rather than on the proposed makeup of a class of engineering students, it would be easier to deal with. But it was not. And the critique, in essence, poses some fundamental questions relevant to the education of all women in Canada. If we do not recognize differences in background preparation, in teaching and in learning, then we are only offering full career opportunities only to a very small number of highly motivated, well-placed women who are both willing and able to survive in the existing systems in higher education and the workplace.
Changing, adapting and executing programs and courses is a fundamental privilege of our university system. These are essential elements of our autonomy, and underpin our ability to respond to the social, economic and intellectual needs of our society and its future. If a discipline or a profession which is housed in the university is not capable of such change and adaptation, or of the constructive self-criticism that is typical of intellectual progress, the questions that suggest themselves are profound indeed.
Kathryn Bindon is an historian of Canada who was, at the time of writing, V.P., Academic, at Mount Saint Vincent University. She is now Principal of Sir Wilfred Grenfell College (Memorial university) in Cornerbrook, Newfoundland.