Women may not have been popular or even accepted in the field of computer science and engineering in the 1950s but times have changed.
Concordia hosted a conference on women in engineering and computer science last Monday as part of Concordia’s 2004 Engineering and Computer Science Week.
The keynote women speakers at this conference were Sonia Assa, a wireless networking specialist and Dr. Leila Kosseim, a computer science professor at Concordia since 2001. They were asked to speak about their experiences as women and gave their insights as to why they think there are so few women in engineering and computer science.
According to Concordia’s Dean of engineering and computer science, Dr. Nabil Esmail, there are 495 undergraduate women (20 per cent) and 247 graduate women (25 per cent) in the field at Concordia.
“Today in the computer science department, I counted; we are 39 profs, five women, 35 men. I always tell the joke; it takes only five women to do the work of 35 men,” pointed out Dr. Kosseim, explaining that when she was working for a small start-up company, out of the nine researchers, she was the only woman.
After showing charts in a power point presentation, Kosseim said, “There is an upward trend, the numbers are rather low but it is going up. Why? Well, I don’t know frankly.”
Kosseim said she hasn’t done extensive research on the subject but she suggested that it is a question of “the perception of the domain from women and from people in general.”
There is also the question of encouraging women to go into engineering and computer science vs. not discouraging them.
Kosseim also thinks that there are too few role models for women “but that’s a vicious circle, if no women go into engineering and computer science there will be no role model to follow.”
She also suggests that it may simply be perceived as an “old boys club.”
For Sonia Assa who is part of the Institute National pour la Recherche Scientifique (INRS), the reasons why women’s emancipation in the field is rather low can be attributed to the “forces of attraction and repulsion.”
Assa suggests that these attractions and repulsions in a woman are a constant tug “between personal interest, family and her attraction to engineering and financial issues.
“The direction and magnitude of these forces depend on both her personality and the environment she is in.”
Assa also claimed that the natural differences between men and women show “extra high IQ tests for engineers is higher in men than in the female population.
“Another example of these natural forces is having children, which is more demanding for mothers than fathers.”
The only woman out of 15 professors at INRS, Assa, suggests that women are more influenced by social forces: traditions, opinions, sensitivity to the opinion of others, the environment, and public opinion.
Kosseim believes there are different challenges and advantages to being a women in a male dominated profession.
One challenge she says is receiving e-mails from people who address her as “Dear Sir.”
“It gets on your nerves at some point.”
One advantage, she jokes, is that it makes for a “great pool to find husband material.”
All joking aside, Hany Moustapha, who works for Pratt and Whitney and is director of Concordia’s Institute for Aerospace Design and Innovation isn’t worried about women entering the profession because he says it is happening in “big, big quantities.”
“Personally, I would like to see more women going into graduate studies being professors in universities because it is a very rewarding profession, especially for women who would like to have a family.”
Shahnaj A. Shimmy is president of the Engineering and Computer science association. As one of the women students in a position of power, not only did she organize this conference, she’s also managed to branch the conference out into the community.
“This year, we also have a ‘Women in engineering and computer science’ outreach conference where we bring in young, female high school students to encourage them to choose the engineering and computer science discipline for their future studies,” announced Shahnaj.