The unseen struggles of women in engineering

Women in Engineering. Amelia Hart @ameliaohart / THE CONCORDIAN

Concordia students share their experiences as women in engineering 

When Gloria Anastasopoulos was 10 years old, her school organized a ceramics painting day. Excited, the young girl found a motorcycle ceramic to paint and went to ask for the monitor’s permission. 

“And she was like, ‘Why do you want to paint that?’” recalled Anastasopoulos. “And I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t know, it’s cool!’ And she’s like, ‘Oh, leave it for one of the boys to paint. It’s a motorcycle, leave it, maybe one of the boys wants it.’”

After making sure nobody else took the ceramic, Anastasopoulos ended up being allowed to paint it. Now in her third year in mechanical engineering at Concordia, she still has the motorcycle, and she still carries the experience that came with it.

The first time she spoke with The Concordian, Anastasopoulos could not think on the spot of this story nor any specific instances where she felt singled out as a woman in engineering. She could only share a feeling that these moments had occurred.

Shortly after the interview however, she requested a second talk. This time, she came armed with a list of microaggressions and subtle sexism experienced by herself and her colleagues. “You get so used to seeing it, you don’t even notice,” she said. 

Anastasopoulos is very involved in engineering societies and competitions at Concordia. She said that there are many women in these groups, but a lot of them fill management roles, while the men fill more of the design and programming roles. 

She recalled the story of one of her friends, who joined a society in which most of the members were men. They sometimes met until late at night to work on projects, but her friend was uncomfortable staying out so late with men, and having to take the metro and walk home alone at night. So she left early.

“She always had this thought: ‘Do they think I’m not putting in enough effort, because I don’t stay as late as the men in the room?’” said Anastasopoulos. “But really, they just don’t understand and they don’t have to think about the kind of stuff that she had to think about.”

Another one of Anastasopoulos’ friends was passed up for a coveted and highly technical society position two years in a row. As far as Anastasopoulos is aware, the position has not been held by a woman in recent memory. 

Despite this candidate’s qualifications, the role went to another candidate, who is male. “But the president told me, almost word for word, ‘I don’t want to take her because she speaks up a lot,’” shared Anastasopoulos. “This read to me like, ‘I don’t want to take her because she goes against what I say.’”

“I regret not saying something at the time,” said Anastasopoulos. “I guess you get so used to it.”

In 2010, faced by the low number of women in engineering, the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta created the 30 by 30 initiative. The goal of this plan was to ensure that 30 per cent of newly licensed engineers are women by 2030. This initiative was soon adopted throughout Canada.

Today, 20 per cent of newly licensed engineers in Quebec are women, and according to their 2022-24 strategic plan, Engineers Canada fears they will not reach their goal. This year at Concordia, 23 per cent of new undergraduates and 28 per cent of new graduate engineering students were women, reported the Office of Institutional Planning and Analysis.

The difficulties faced by women in engineering are the topic of Dr. Ann-Louise Howard’s thesis. Howard is an assistant professor in Concordia’s department of applied human sciences. She started her career as an engineer, but left because of the hostile work environment. Only when she started her research did she understand that her experience was tied with gender. On March 8, International Women’s Day, she gave a webinar about her research. 

Howard’s research focuses on the female engineers who suffer in the workplace and on the microaggressions they experience. According to her, while there exists a lot of research on women in engineering, there is a gap when it comes to microaggressions.

“We talk so much about how women are welcome in engineering, there’s so much effort to showcase successful women in engineering,” said Howard. “But engineering is a very gendered profession, and microaggressions are manifestations of implicit bias.”

She also mentioned that people often fail to consider the experiences of women in engineering who are part of other marginalized communities, like women of colour or LGBTQ+ women, and the additional barriers and struggles they may face.

Anastasopoulos shared a variety of other instances where she felt her male peers did not respect the women around them. One of her colleagues told her that “girls can just go cry to the professor and get a better grade,” and that, as a man, he didn’t “have that luxury.” Another argued that the reason why Anastasopoulos had more connections than him on LinkedIn was because she is a woman.

“It’s just little stuff like that,” said Anastasopoulos. But it’s a trend.

Rania Alioueche, third-year mechanical engineering student and co-VP of the outreach team of Concordia’s Women in Engineering association, had similar experiences. Before starting at Concordia, she expected that 40 per cent of the students would be women. 

“But actually, I was the only girl in my lab class,” she said. “There would be a whole auditorium of 160 people, and there would be only 30 girls, maximum.”

In group projects, the ideas of her male peers were often accepted without question, Alioueche said. “If I would propose something, they would have to double-check, ‘Let’s check with the teacher, let’s check online if it’s true.’ They would always doubt what I said.”

The worst comment she got was after an exam. “We received our grades back,” she recalled, “and I had a good grade, and the guy next to me during the lab said something along the line of: ‘You’re flirting with the TA, that’s why you got a good grade.’”

“All the women that I know in engineering experience this,” said Alioueche. 

Alexandra Gagliano is a second-year mechanical engineering student. She noticed inequalities between the work of her male and female peers when it came to group projects.

This semester, for the first time since she started in engineering and after going through five different lab groups, Gagliano has only women in one of them. “Best lab group I’ve ever had,” she said. “Everyone does their work on time, communicates well, it’s so easy, simple.”

In her other lab groups, some of her male colleagues ignored her when it was time to write the report, and others simply did not show up to the lab.

“Maybe women are more conditioned to be responsible, so sometimes the work does fall on the woman in the group,” Gagliano said.

She also shared that making friends with the men in her program was very difficult. Many of her attempts at friendship ended when she rejected her male friends’ romantic advances.

“Sometimes, I feel a bit like an outsider if I’m the only girl in the group of like, six guys,” Gagliano said. “Sometimes it’s a bit difficult.”

Howard felt like all these examples could have been plucked from her research, as they were so similar to other women’s experiences in engineering.

“One of the things that I found was that women in engineering tough it out,” said Howard. “Part of that was, they disregard the price that they’re paying.”

These visible instances are only the tip of the iceberg, according to Howard’s research. Many more are just subtle enough to be felt but not recognized. But these small cuts add up.

Howard wondered what women internalize about themselves along the way: That they cannot be too bold? That they must become “one of the boys?” That they are not as talented as their male colleagues, and that the attention they receive is simply due to them being women?

“I feel a little alone, talking about this,” she said. “The dominant narrative is that we want women in engineering. ‘Here, look at these women who are successful in engineering,’ and they give all the credit in the world. But there’s stories that are conspicuously absent from that narrative.”

“People ask me why I did this research,” Howard said. “And I really never wanted to do this research. I wanted to be an engineer.”


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