Athena SWAN and Other UK-Canada Collaborations on the Topic of Diversity and Inclusivity

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.20181009_061248This 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.

Growing Fire Engineering in Canada

There is no question when you travel through Toronto you look to the sky and imagine the possibilities for iconic structures and you do see first hand the structural revolution occurring there. And more so, if your aware, you ask what this means for Canadian fire engineering design. Buildings are becoming very complex.

Where old meets new in London. A centuries old church with the 40 storey Gherkin in the background.
Where old meets new in London. A centuries old church with the 40 storey Gherkin in the background.

In Toronto alone, there are now over 25 buildings that are 50 stories or higher. Nearly 15 are under construction and nearly 30 are approved and/or proposed. Even in Ottawa there are about five or so proposed.

The Walkie Talkie (or the death ray wind tunnel generating building as locals refer to it in the background.
The Walkie Talkie (or the death ray, wind tunnel generating building as locals refer to it) in the background.

So how do you convey and prepare university students what innovative and complex designs may be like? How might you inspire them beyond designing a ‘box’? There is the cheap route – take them down to Toronto and show them first hand the newly designed buildings there; or maybe the more elaborate route and show them designs abroad (not necessary tall per say, but significant nevertheless). In Canada we have begun to push the envelope in fire engineering design, but in the United Kingdom for example, there has been a lot of attention given to fire engineering – specifically to complex buildings.

Recently two research students and myself traveled to London UK (a third went to Cambridge, UK the week after for the Human Behaviour in Fire symposium – Ill talk on that later). This was in an effort to illustrate to how iconic and fire engineered structures are designed abroad and allow a bit of comparative thought to what we do in Canada. The students presented their current research to some of the world’s largest engineering firms and had the opportunity to speak one on one with designers (many whom inspired my own career) about the challenges being faced abroad; particularly in respect to structural fire engineering. 

To achieve long spans, cellular beam composite structures are the norm in London.
To achieve long spans, cellular beam composite structures are the norm in London.

Beyond this ‘city’ class room, the students attended the Steel in Fire Forum, where one of them presented her research to a captive audience (you can see her presentation slides here). The Steel in Fire forum is merging with the Concrete in fire forum, and this was the ‘last’ session. I find it fitting that a student gave the last presentation as I believe fire safety engineering’s biggest challenges are in education, particularly in Canada (but that is discussion for another day). Above all it was fantastic that so many people took so much time to accommodate the students and myself to teach about what structural design is like in the United Kingdom, one of the world’s best examples for iconic structure construction. The trip will certainly provoke the students into thought on what they see today and possibly will see tommorrow in design.