The month of October has been incredibly productive for our women in engineering project (led by yours truly, Natalie). Early in the month, I had the pleasure of attending the Athena SWAN conference hosted by York University, and just a couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to travel to England to link up with professionals in the engineering discipline that are working toward positive change.
Athena SWAN is a recent initiative spearheaded by the UK to increase representation of women and minorities in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) fields. It is a program designed to reward institutions who consistently work toward promoting diversity and inclusivity, and its success lies in its rewards not being permanent. Institutions that carry Athena SWAN medals must continue to support inclusivity and diversity, else lose their medals for lack of improvement.This focus on accountability and endurance of effective programs and practices over time is precisely what our research in Canada is targeting. The Athena SWAN conference held at York University sought to understand how to bring the Athena SWAN framework to Canada, as many of our resources and problems are similar but there are marked differences that must be acknowledged. Key themes that emerged from this conference were the need to acknowledge the differences between recruitment, development, and retention in our research and discussions about diversity; the need for initiatives and collaborations to run at a national level; and the need for institutions to be transparent to the public about both their successes and failures. I hope to embed these themes in our continuing work on the retention of women in engineering across Canada, and to involve more and more institutions in our research program. It is clear that incentives to participate in the drive to include underrepresented folks in STEM are being developed more and more, and that means that we will hopefully start seeing the people who need to be participating start participating, to avoid preaching to the choir.
Talking engineering-specific retention issues in England was especially enlightening for me. There were negative sentiments about retention I have been seeing domestically being echoed abroad, but what was helpful was hearing about what worked to combat those negative aspects and what didn’t. Moving forward, I have some great ideas about which parts of women’s careers need desperate looking into. There is more to this issue than internal working environment; there is an overarching engineering culture that impacts women more negatively than men, even when that culture doesn’t exist in women’s immediate work spaces. There are subtleties and passing relationships that contribute a lot more than I thought, and I hope to bring some of that forward as we reach out to more women in Canada. There are many champions in the UK that are eager to extend their hands to help, and I am very thankful for the opportunity to have met them.
– Natalie Mazur, Research Associate