Students taking charge of Diversity in Engineering

A group of engineering students is set on measuring diversity and inclusivity and improving the culture of engineering school and the profession.

21 June 2018

(Edmonton) June 23 marks International Women in Engineering Day. As UN-designated days go, it isn't the best known. But in some quarters it's the most important. Women are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. This lack of diversity has many causes and outcomes.

And a new University of Alberta student group, called Diversity in Engineering (DivE), is hoping to change the culture for students and practicing engineers.

Students of all stripes can feel different degrees of discomfort, "but gender seems to be one of the biggest lenses" through which imbalances reveal themselves, says Meghana Valupadas, a fourth-year civil engineering (co-op) student who helped establish the DivE group.

As a student at university and as an employee in the workplace, Valupadas has had experiences at different stages of the spectrum. Behaviours such as people in positions of power referring to a woman as "sweetie," cracking jokes about women in the kitchen, or excluding applicants from the hiring process because their names reveal information about gender and ethnicity "are apparently still OK in some circles," she said.

These behaviours exclude people based on gender and gender identity, race, and ethnicity, from STEM studies and professions.

"Those are small cuts into a tree and eventually that tree will fall. School and university are supposed to be accepting and tolerant and there isn't a place for behaviour like that," she added.

After "ranting" about these kinds of experiences with a female friend who had recently graduated from the engineering program, the idea of creating positive change, through DivE, emerged. With the support and guidance of Associate Dean of Outreach Ania Ulrich and chemical and materials engineering professor Lianne Lefsrud, the group began conducting research to take the temperature of students, by fielding surveys about their experiences and opinions.

"We asked a lot of questions to find out where we stand or where we are at in inclusivity and diversity in engineering," she says. "We have a massive amount of data now to help us understand what we are doing right, where the gaps are, and how we can close the gaps and make stronger programs."

Even the faculty's curriculum can be improved, she says, by including instruction addressing inequality and teaching students how to deal with difficult situations.

For example, Valupadas says female students will often ask women engineers about how they were able to jointly plan families and careers, or how to negotiate for salary increases or promotions. She wants to take the "emotional burden" of responding to these issues off of female professors and women in the profession by having them included in the engineering curriculum.

Other work DivE group members are excited about is building awareness and conducting outreach sessions on campus and off. DivE, which is also the U of A chapter of the national EngiQueers organization, recently hosted a panel on LGBTQ+ representation in STEM fields.

Valupadas and her "huge, amazing team" of DivE members are confident that by confronting traditions born in fields once dominated by males, society will benefit as new perspectives are brought to bear on society's great technical challenges.

"Because engineering is so technically focused we can lose that social lens, we can forget that engineers are crating solutions for people," she says. "We have to remember that we have our own identities as well-because that plays into the solutions we come up with."