The Ladies of the Iron Ring

In 2016, the United Nations began commemorating February 11th as the International Day for Women and Girls in Science, in recognition of the need to empower female scientists, engineers and inventors as a part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. While UN observances are often significant in terms of drawing attention towards an issue, they are not as effective at resolving the root cause of the issue. Professor Amy Bilton from the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering pointed out: “People reinforce traditional roles without even realizing that they are doing it. Also, due to a lack of female researchers, young women often lack role models whom they can relate to with from a young age.”

Gender discrimination is often recognized and criticized only when it is blatantly obvious, but it is the more subtle bias that, when deeply embedded in the fabric of the global society, proves to be infinitely more persistent and infinitely more dangerous. “The only way we can achieve that [more women in science] is from bottom-up. We need to stop the systemic bias that starts so early in people’s life. We need to get students interested in science and we need to get them to follow through with research,” says Professor Brenda McCabe, Associate Professor in the Department of Civil Engineering. “By having more female professors, we get role models so [that female students know] that it’s not just men, we are a part of this.”

While sciences, particularly health and agriculture, have seen, a rapid rise in women researchers, engineering has long been a field traditionally considered unsuitable for women. Even so, there was a rise in the proportion of female students coming to U of T Engineering. Changing societal perceptions would have been a strong contributor to that – seeing women as accomplished professionals in every discipline of engineering can be the motivation that many unsure students need to take this leap.

Moreover, there is now an increasing demand for skilled people in industries, offices and working sites. Professor McCabe elaborated on this changing trend: “Many employers understand the role that women play when they work with men. The workplace is a different and a better workplace.” Women offer a different perspective to the same problem – and that in turn can ensure that we study the issue from many different angles.  “They challenge each other in different ways, they think differently and we come up with different and better solutions.”