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Science and engineering: not just a “guy thing”

In Cégep, Ève Langelier dreamed of designing airplanes. Inspired by her father’s passion for flying, she enrolled in a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering with the goal of becoming an aircraft designer. The young woman quickly found herself immersed in a “guys’ world”.  “90% of the students were male, and the situation hasn’t changed today,” states the mechanical engineering professor from Université de Sherbrooke. This reality is also reflected in the composition of the faculty’s teaching staff: of some one hundred professors, only eight are women.

Many branches of engineering are still struggling to attract women. As the NSERC Chair for Women in Science and Engineering – Québec, Dr. Langelier has given herself the mission of demystifying these fields that are still shunned by women. With her two video series Changer le monde au féminin and D’une femme à une autre, she is seeking to present female role models and deconstruct preconceived ideas and stereotypes about science and engineering.

The hidden side of mechanical engineering

But why does mechanical engineering, in particular, put women off? Dr. Langelier has observed that in elementary school, female teachers, who are the majority, are often uncomfortable with technology. Does their discomfort rub off on their young students? Girls’ interest in mathematics and the world of technology is at its lowest point in early high school. Is it a question of culture? “Girls are more attracted to fields that help people,” observes Dr. Langelier, who did her own Master’s, PhD and postdoctoral studies in a more “human” branch of mechanical engineering. After completing her bachelor’s degree, the engineer abandoned airplanes for bioengineering, in which engineering concepts are applied to medicine, biology and sport in order to improve quality of life or sports performance, for example. “This field is not even known to Cégep students. Most people associate mechanical engineering with cars, but it is more related to the study of movement,” she explains.

Changing attitudes

Dr. Langelier also hopes that the Chair’s activities will help improve the well-being of women who choose science and engineering. She directs a discussion group on the impact of internship experiences. “It is not always easy being a woman in a male-dominated environment. I was once refused an internship simply because I was a woman. That can be discouraging, and some women may end up changing direction,” she observes. The engineer firmly believes that one should not focus on a person’s gender, but on the skills that they bring to a team. “Diversity produces a more creative environment, so why would you want to avoid it?” she adds. The NSERC Chair is carrying out a pilot training project to educate university hiring committees about the advantages of gender diversity, as well as the unconscious gender biases surrounding employment offers, candidate assessment and hiring practices. “To change attitudes, we must start by changing the way things are done,” believes Dr. Langelier.