Closing the gender equality gap in engineering: In conversation with Dr. Heidi Ploeg

Ploeg is the first Chair for Women in Engineering

Ploeg also used to be a student at Queen’s.

This article was updated with new information on Oct. 25.

The Faculty of Engineering and Applied Sciences (FEAS) appointed Dr. Heidi Ploeg as the inaugural Chair for Women in Engineering on Oct. 15. Ploeg will hold a five-year term in the position.

The Board of Trustees approved the position at its December meeting in 2019. The position, which is in the Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, is funded by an anonymous alumnus who donated an endowment of $3 million.

“We want to set Queen’s as a leader in promoting diversity in engineering, targeting specifically women in engineering” Ploeg told The Journal in an interview. “We’re looking at our numbers, how many faculty we have in engineering that are women, we’re looking at how many students we have that are women, and our goal is to increase these numbers.”

Though Ploeg is looking to increase the number of female students in the FEAS at Queen’s, she also said she’s invested in Engineers Canada’s 30 by 30 program—the national program aiming to increase the percentage of women in engineering to 30 per cent by 2030.

Ploeg said the current national percentage of women in the profession of engineering is a mere 18 per cent.

“When I was a student at Queen’s, [that number] wasn’t much lower than it is now,” Ploeg told The Journal. “I totally expected that by my age now that I would be in a community that was on par [with the number of men and women being equal in the profession.]”

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“It’s not something that will happen without effort, and I’m disappointed with the level of effort and the level of change that has happened in the 30 years that I have been in the profession.”

Ploeg, BSc ’88, MSc ’91, PhD ’00, studied mechanical engineering at Queen’s.

During her graduate work, Ploeg also worked in a research department modelling and testing orthopedic implants in Winterthur, Switzerland. Shortly after completing her PhD, Ploeg moved to the United States and became an assistant professor at the mechanical engineering department of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

After receiving tenure from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and serving as an assistant and then associate professor in mechanical engineering, Ploeg returned to Queen’s to teach as an associate professor in 2018.

Upon her return to Queen’s, Ploeg entered into conversations about creating the position for Chair for Women Engineering.

Ploeg hopes the position will provide an example for universities both in Canada and internationally to advocate for more women in the profession of engineering.                     

READ MORE: New conference aims to foster discussions about gender equality in engineering

“It’s important to our society,” she said. “We are really missing an opportunity when we only have 18 per cent of the profession as women.”

“The types of challenges we face as a society need a diverse team membership. Engineers need to be part of that team, and they need to help in the complex challenges we are facing, in terms of the environment or pandemics. Engineers definitely need to be at the table, and those engineers need to be diverse as well and represent the citizenship.”

Ploeg told The Journal that the Faculty of Arts and Science is now licensed to offer a viewing for the documentary Picture a Scientist this semester to all students through Stauffer Library. The documentary follows several female scientists changing the face of science in the United States and worldwide, showing what it means to be a female scientist.

Ploeg will also be teaching MECH 333, a new class open to students outside of the FEAS that addresses the importance of having diversity in design technology. The course was developed by Dr. Genevieve Dumas, an emeritus prof at Queen's.

“I am hopeful we will get closer to the 30 by 30,” Ploeg said. “If we have 50 per cent of women as Canadians, we need to have 50 per cent of engineers to be women.”

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