The more conferences I go to that are themed around women in science and engineering, the more hopeful I become that engineers are ready to tackle problems of diversity and inclusion head on. The Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) annual conference took place this year on January 26th and 27th in Toronto. It is a society- and community-led conference, as opposed to a research-intensive conference, and it is organized as an outreach initiative. WISE 2019 has been my favourite conference on diversity and inclusion in engineering so far, precisely because of its focus on outreach and problem-solving.
WISE 2019 represents a kind of community gathering that is often missing in engineering spaces. It’s a setting where students, academics, and industry partners come together to talk about careers and resilience. For someone like me, interested in the retention of women in engineering, this setting is an excellent example of what schools and employers should be doing for students and employees. Research into issues of diversity and inclusion is important, but arguably, solving the problems research finds is even more important. The WISE 2019 conference provided several workshops, ranging from technical to personal development. The explicit attention given to work-life balance in the keynotes, presentations, and workshops showed a commitment to engineers’ and scientists’ lives as opposed to just their work. I could see how empowering it was for attendees to have their identities as both engineers and people validated. It made having difficult discussions much easier because there was a mutual trust between everyone in attendance. Validation begets respect, respect begets trust, and trust begets confidence. Confidence brings out the good ideas that might otherwise be missed.
This past month I had the pleasure of representing the Lassonde Institute of Fire Engineering at the 15th International Wildland Fire Safety Summit and 5th Human Dimensions Conference in Asheville, North Carolina. Organized by the International Association of Wildland Fire (IAWF), the conference was a glowing success despite the unexpected snowstorm that threw a wrench in many attendees’ travel plans. The fact that only one presentation had to be cancelled as a result of these challenges highlighted to me just how determined and passionate the presenters and event organizers were to share the important research being conducted in the field of wildfire safety and human factors in the wildland urban interface (WUI).
The five-day conference ran from December 10th – 14th and consisted of a wide range of workshops, presentations, poster sessions, and networking opportunities. The conference went outside the box to offer various types of presentations, ranging from plenaries and panels that allowed for dialog and diverse perspectives, to deep-dives that encouraged in-depth learning and participation, to themed sessions of 20-minute presentations exploring new and innovative research being conducted. The conference also provided a unique opportunity for academics and practitioners to learn from each other, discuss partnerships and challenge assumptions. As a young academic entering the field, it was invigorating to be immersed in such a supportive environment.
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.