28 Years Later: We Still Need an Organization For Women Scientists and Engineers in NL

Mona El-Tahan moved to Newfoundland from Cairo to do a Masters Degree in Ocean Engineering at Memorial University in the eighties and was struck by how few of the engineers working alongside her were women.

Mona El-Tahan moved to Newfoundland from Cairo to do a Masters Degree in Ocean Engineering at Memorial University in the eighties. When she graduated and began working at Lavalin-Fenco Newfoundland Ltd, she was struck by how few of the engineers working alongside her were women.

In 1988, the same year that abortion was decriminalized in Canada, the CBC Morning show asked to interview El-Tahan about her research on icebergs. El-Tahan seized the opportunity to call the first meeting of Women in Science and Engineering Newfoundland and Labrador (WISE NL), on air.

One year later twelve women would be murdered for studying engineering in the École Polytechnique Massacre in Montreal.

While there are now more women in science and engineering in Newfoundland and Labrador than there were in the late eighties, statistics show that these fields are still heavily dominated by men. Not only do more men pursue undergraduate degrees in science and engineering, men are more likely to go on to do PhDs and be employed in those fields.

WISE NL Continues to Respond to Underrepresentation 

Today WISE NL is a very active, non-profit organization. It continues to respond to the underrepresentation of women in science and engineering in our province by raising awareness about the invaluable contributions women scientists and engineers are making in their fields and by offering a wide array of programs that encourage women to pursue degrees and careers in those areas.

“Something that WISE NL does really well is provide networking opportunities for women from a diverse range of fields, in different stages of their careers … WISE NL recognizes that intergenerational and interdisciplinary networking is really important,” said Carly Bigelow, WISE NL’s Program Coordinator.

In addition to creating networking opportunities for women already studying or working in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), WISE NL also offers programs that inspire young women to study STEM when they begin university.

WISE NL’s Student Summer Employment Program

WISE NL’s Student Summer Employment Program sets students up with an eight-week work placement. The program gives girls first hand experience working in the field of science or engineering. WISE NL understands that not all students are able to travel to St. John’s to complete a placement, so they offer placements all across Newfoundland and Labrador.

In the final week of the Student Summer Employment Program, WISE NL brings students working outside of the St. John’s Metro Area to the city for a series of networking events. Bigelow explained that during the final week of the program girls from all over the province with an interest in science or engineering make friendships. Those friendships often develop into life-long support systems as they pursue careers in those fields.

“The program prepares students for university by giving them opportunities for personal and professional development. Having that experience gives them the confidence of knowing they can go into these fields and they can succeed in them,” Bigelow said about the Student Summer Employment Program.

Mackenzie Grace Latest Beneficiary of WISE NL’s Operation

In the summer of 2015, Mackenzie Grace, a high school student at Stella Maris Academy in Trepassey, participated in WISE NL’s Student Summer Employment Program as a Behavioural Neuroscience Research Assistant. The program gave her hands on experience working in a lab at Memorial University, alongside women undergraduate and graduate students.

“…there’s inequality in terms of the number of women working in science and engineering, so it’s really important to promote STEM to girls as a possible career choice,” Grace said about the value of WISE NL’s programs for high school students.

Since completing the program Grace has been named a 2016 recipient of the Schulich Leader Scholarships, receiving an award valued at 60,000$. The annual scholarship program encourages Canadian high school graduates to embrace STEM disciplines in their future careers.

WISE NL’s mentorship program galvanized Grace’s love of science and inspired her to use her scholarship to study biochemistry at Memorial University. Grace is one example of how important WISE NL’s programming is for the diversification of science and engineering in our province.

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  • Not to diminish the work that WISE-NL does, but maybe women are just less interested in math-heavy careers that often take them away from cities and out in places like offshore and Canada’s North. The isolation might play a factor in many cases.

    I work in geoscience and there are definitely fewer women in engineering and geosciences but the ones who do it are every bit as capable, dedicated and detail-oriented as their male peers, and oftentimes more so.

    But lots of those careers are also not conducive to raising a family or even getting an equal balance of home life and career advancement. You really do have to choose one or the other.

    Maybe that’s why women shy away in favour of traditional roles; nursing, teachers, ECE, and so on. Maybe they just don’t want the 85+ hour work weeks that often come in those fields.

    • There are currently many different job opportunities for women in science and engineering than just those that require 85+ hour work weeks. With that being said many men in today’s job market aren’t looking to work positions of that time extent either. As a young women currently completing a chemistry degree I would say that my classes are primarily comprised of women with the male presence in the classes being less pronounced. With many of the women in my class planning for hopefully successful careers in both industry and academia.

      Oftentimes a lack of women in high paid science and engineering jobs comes from the lack of support as well of the remaining stigma that unfortunately still steams from the past regarding the competencies of men and women in science. As long as we continue to tie the responsibilities of raising a family to solely our women counterparts in the job market we will continue to face this stigma. It’s 2016, and the family dynamic has drastically changed from that of the past.

      I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some inspiring women throughout my academic journey, many of which are exceeding in both their career and family life. I sincerely hope that in the near future I can become one of those women!

    • No one, female or male, wants 85+ hour work weeks, except employers, who save money through systematic understaffing. Any problem that is addressed by ridiculous overtime can be fixed by hiring more people.

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