Engineering Equity in a Profession Dominated by Men
Engineers gathered for the Engineers Canada 30 by 30 Virtual Conference in June to highlight solutions and address the culture of exclusion many women and under-represented groups in the profession experience—a problem conference attendee Megan Bowen, P.Eng., personally encounters and passionately strives to solve.
As a woman working in a profession dominated by men, Megan says most of her experiences are positive—it’s the negative ones that can mar the rest. She explains she wants to be clear, “At my current company, I feel very supported and respected, which is really huge.” She says her current role is ideal, but in the past at other organizations, she has faced challenges and biases because she is a woman.
Megan began her career as a mechanical engineer in the oil and gas industry. In 2017, she moved to Germany to complete her master’s degree in renewable energy and engineering management, moving back to Calgary after graduation. She worked as a research associate on carbon capture and storage opportunities at the University of Calgary before beginning her current position as environment social and governance (ESG) and sustainability coordinator at Strathcona Resources in 2021.
While in Germany, she realized that engineering is a profession disproportionately dominated by men in many other countries as well. Although engineers from around the globe attended her master’s program, it contained the same ratio of women to men as she found in her engineering classes in Canada. She also encountered some of the same problems she faced as a woman engineer in Canada. She recalls when her supervisor, a man, informed her the shoes she wore to class were unprofessional, yet no dress code was in place. She says the comment may reflect the culture of directness she found in Germany, but it still made her uncomfortable. She explains her counterparts who were men would not receive similar comments unless their footwear caused a potential threat to safety.
Megan highlights moments she felt disrespected throughout her career. When interviewing for a job, she was questioned about her plans for family and childcare*. “I was very much, like, I don’t feel this is an appropriate question to ask, especially considering I don’t have children.” She wondered if they asked men candidates the same questions.
One of the struggles woman engineers often must overcome, explains Megan, is getting left out of their departmental groups at work, which are often dominated by men. She says one of the best parts of a career in engineering is being surrounded by people who speak the same technical language as you and have the same interest in problem solving. She explains occasionally woman engineers are left out of extracurricular activities because men colleagues tend to bond with their same-gendered counterparts. Woman engineers are often found eating lunch with work groups that are more gender-diverse—like legal, administration, or accounting. “Sometimes the group of engineers will come back from lunch-hour socializing, and they’ve solved the problem you were talking about beforehand. That’s good, but I could have been included.” She explains that occasionally she would ask to be included, and more often than not, her attempts would be denied.
A role model, an engineer
From the time she was 12, Megan wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps and be an engineer. Top of her class in mathematics and physics throughout junior high and high school, she approached guidance counsellors about pursuing the profession as a career—they redirected her to occupations that were stereotypically done by women instead. Tenacious, she got her engineering degree anyway. “I struggle to think of an example of a woman engineer who didn’t have an engineer in the family, and just went into it blindly. Whereas in all my classes, there were plenty of men who said they were directed by guidance counsellors or were interested in engineering without a role model. I feel like women need to see that role model or need someone to advocate that it is an avenue available to them.”
Seeing this as a gap in the education system, Megan now volunteers to promote science, technology, engineering, and math to children and young adults through APEGA’s Science Olympics and the science festival Beakerhead.
Changing the profession from within
She says the career isn’t easily recognizable to young people: “I think sometimes there’s the perception that if you’re an engineer, you’re someone who just works in an office and crunches numbers. They don’t know about the blend between the technical, artistic, and creative side of engineering.” She’s proud to share what an interesting career choice it is. “I’m biased. I think everyone should be an engineer. If the profession were more accessible, we would end up getting more women engineers as a by-product.”
She’s doing her part to bring change to the profession from within as the ESG and sustainability coordinator at Strathcona Resources, developing the company’s diversity and inclusion principles. After attending the 30 by 30 Virtual Conference panel Collecting Data on Diversity Demographics, Megan says she feels more educated and prepared to take on this task, guided by what industry leaders currently do.
She thinks meeting Engineers Canada’s goal of having 30 per cent of newly licensed engineers be women by 2030 is achievable, but her hope for the future is to see positive changes in behaviour and biases.
* Under Canadian Human Rights Law, "it is prohibited to ask questions about country/place of origin and citizenship status, religion, faith, or creed, age, gender or sexual orientation, race or ethnicity, family structure, children or marital status, mental or physical health or disability, appearance, height and weight, and pardoned offences.” (https://www.kcyatlaw.ca/illegal-interview-questions/)