The hidden gender disparity in ECE

Female engineering students discuss their experiences in male-dominated disciplines

Some engineering disciplines have far lower female representation than the overall faculty.
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“I took a class in third year where there were more Michaels than girls in my class,” said Emily Townshend, a sixth-year engineering student.  

Queen’s Faculty of Engineering boasts one of the highest percentages of female students enrolled in engineering in Canada — 31 per cent of students in the class of 2020 are women.  By comparison, McGill and Waterloo’s engineering programs have 27 per cent and 28 per cent, respectively. 

But the 31 per cent doesn’t account for the uneven distribution among the disciplines within engineering, and specifically in electrical and computing engineering (ECE). 

For Townshend, Sci ’15, the overall numbers don’t reflect her experience in computer engineering where women make up approximately 14 per cent of the disciplines’ student body. 

“Though we are overall as a [faculty] 30 per cent, and that’s a statistic that we love to quote, when you actually get down to it and break into your disciplines, it’s not 30 per cent across the board,” Townshend said. 

“A girl who’s in chemical engineering is going to have a very different experience from a girl in computer [and] electrical engineering.” 

While women make up 50 per cent of the student body in chemical and geological engineering, in other disciplines, such as computing, electrical and mining, women make up less than 15 per cent, according to information provided by ECE department head Michael Greenspan. 

According to Townshend, women are a minority in ECE and treated like it. 

 “I don’t feel like if I made a complaint against a professor that it would be taken seriously,” said Townshend. “There are professors that have totally been sexist in the past, but what am I going to do? I can’t report that. Who am I going to go to? My male supervisor? The male undergraduate chair?” 

Townshend said she’s encountered inappropriate remarks in class by both professors and students alike. 

“A coding prof once told us that a specific topic in class was like ‘looking up the skirt to see what it is.’ There’s also been sexist remarks from male students that the women in the program are ‘doing things’ for marks.” 

Annie Hollis, Sci ’17, experienced the lack of women first hand when she transferred into ECE from a Life Sciences major. 

 “Coming from a faculty that was 60 to 65 per cent female to going to one that’s maybe 10 per cent female was a big difference,” Hollis said.

“It’s definitely an obvious attitude difference as well, all the way from the student level to the faculty and administrative level.”

According to Hollis, at the student level of the ECE department there’s the sense that “female students need to work harder to gain the same  level of respect and recognition as their male counterparts.”

The underrepresentation of women at the faculty and administrative level also contributes to the department’s less than inviting atmosphere. 

“I think there’s something to be said for walking into a class, and every class you walk into, you don’t see yourself represented in any way,” Hollis said. 

Of the 18 faculty members in ECE, there are only two female professors.  

According to Hollis, she hasn’t heard any conversation happening among ECE faculty and administration members concerning gender disparity at all levels, and more importantly, alleged sexism that pervades the department. 

“Right now, faculty specific, there is no conversation open about it, so we just keep quiet about most of the instances of blatant sexism,” Hollis said. 

While these instances are spoken of among the female ECE students, Hollis explained, when a higher authority is needed, ironically, the only person at the administrative level to speak with is male. 

“It definitely does discourage you from going to talk to anybody about the issues you do face. The fact that it isn’t talked about means that the people who aren’t experiencing it … don’t understand that it exists.”

For Hollis, this underrepresentation and lack of support for women by women at the faculty and administrative level, is problematic and should be taken more seriously by the department. 

However, according to recent graduate, Veronica Riehl, Sci ’16, the gender disparity within ECE was never a concern to her academic success or wellbeing.

“I never felt going in to it that I was unwelcomed,” Riehl said. 

While it’s understandable that female students could be intimidated by the male dominated program, Riehl explained that she never experienced sexism firsthand from others in the program, students or faculty members.

“I remember at graduation they told us that four of the five top students of ECE were women. So even though there were few of us, we did well,” Riehl said. 

“I think that it’s not just Queen’s but it’s going to be at every school, within those disciplines, the gender ratio is going to be different in each one.”

According to Michael Greenspan, associate professor and head of ECE, it’s not for certain why there are so few women in the discipline.

“The answer is that I don’t know definitively why that’s the case,” Greenspan said.

“When I traveled in India a few years ago, they were surprised to hear there was a lack of female students in electrical and computing engineering because in India, that’s where most female engineering students go whereas they don’t go into chemical engineering there at all.”

For Greenspan, the gender disparity in ECE is a complex issue.  The number of women coming in and out of ECE remains approximately the same — that is, very low.

“We scratch our heads to try to understand,” Greenspan said. 

In minimizing the gender gap,  Greenspan said he’s trying to spread the word about the discipline, with a particular emphasis on its practicality, for incoming students and especially women, to see and take interest in.

“It would be great to have a greater percentage of females in our program because everybody comes with a different perspective to solving problems and we want to have a diverse set of inputs in the field as we possibly can.” 

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