York University is loudly pushing for equal male-to-female student ratios across Canada’s engineering programs, while Ryerson University says they’re doing enough to address the issue.

Last Wednesday, York announced a new $1.5-million initiative to become the first engineering school in Canada to have an equal number of male and female students.

Nika Zolfaghari stands by her office in the George Vari Engineering and Computing Centre. (Courtesy of Emily Joveski/Ryersonian Staff)

Nika Zolfaghari stands by her office in the George Vari Engineering and Computing Centre. (Courtesy of Emily Joveski/Ryersonian Staff)

“Achieving a 50:50 gender balance should be a necessity for every engineering school,” said Janusz Kozinski, founding dean of York’s Lassonde School of Engineering, in a press release. “Reaching 50:50 is a bold ambition. We are determined to get there however long it takes.”

Ryerson has spent years dedicating resources and staff toward engaging women in engineering fields, but the university isn’t close to being where it would like to be.

“It’s a great goal to have, but York isn’t the first university to worry about female enrolment,” said Thomas Duever, dean of Ryerson’s Faculty of Engineering and Architectural Science (FEAS).

Last September, Ryerson’s incoming class for the bachelor of engineering program was just over 20 per cent female. The number is fairly consistent with the average of women in engineering programs across the country.

However, gender ratios tend to vary depending on the type of degree program.

Ryerson’s biomedical engineering program was well over the 50 per cent mark for female-enrolment this academic year, but less than 10 per cent of the mechanical engineering class was female. Both numbers are very close to the national averages.

Momina Ishfaq is a third-year civil engineering student at Ryerson and the vice-president external for Ryerson’s engineering student society. Her father is an engineer and always encouraged her to consider the field as a career choice. She admits that if she didn’t have that encouragement at home, she probably wouldn’t be studying engineering now.

“I think that one of the reasons that girls don’t go into engineering is because they don’t have that exposure and they’re not encouraged as much as guys,” said Ishfaq, who was one of the only girls in her high-school class to pursue engineering.

Momina Ishfaq, vice-president external for Ryerson's engineering student society, says if she didn't have encouragement at home, she probably wouldn't have studied engineering. (Courtesy of Emily Joveski/Ryersonian Staff)

Momina Ishfaq, vice-president external for Ryerson’s engineering student society, says if she didn’t have encouragement at home, she probably wouldn’t have studied engineering. (Courtesy of Emily Joveski/Ryersonian Staff)

According to Mary Wells, associate dean of outreach at Waterloo’s engineering and chair of the Ontario Network of Women in Engineering (ONWiE), upping female enrolment is less about instituting equal gender ratio mandates for universities, and more about changing social stereotypes that prevent young girls from pursuing engineering.

Wells’ research pinpoints one class – Grade 12 physics – as the barrier for young women going into engineering.

The course is a requirement for most post-secondary engineering programs, but her research shows there is an 85 per cent drop-off rate for girls by the time they reach the class.

University of British Columbia is experimenting with dropping Grade 12 physics as a prerequisite for their engineering programs, and instead offering it as part of their first-year curriculum. Duever said that Ryerson has no plans to implement a similar change.

“We’ll have to wait and see what impact it has at UBC,” he said.

Meanwhile, Ryerson has a number of programs aimed at helping women enter engineering streams.

Ryerson is a member of the Hydro One Consortium, which aims to increase enrolment and career opportunities for women in Science Technology Engineer and Math (STEM) programs through youth outreach and support for current female students.

Ryerson’s FEAS also has a staff position partly dedicated to addressing the issue. Nika Zolfaghari is the engineering enrichment and outreach coordinator. She’s also a masters student majoring in biomedical engineering.

Part of her job is overseeing Ryerson’s Women in Engineering (WIE) program, which runs workshops with girls as young as nine. The program aims to dispel common misconceptions about engineering as a profession.

“We’ve gotten an incredible response from every age-group,” said Zolfaghari. “By the end of the day the younger girls can name a few different types of engineering. They say they love it, they say they love that it involves teamwork, and it’s something they want to explore.”

Zolfaghari agreed that having an equal gender ratio would be a good thing, but said she doubts that York or any other one school can change the average on their own.

“I think it’s something that we have to work on together,” says Zolfaghari. “If a student ends up going to York or Ottawa in engineering, that’s not a failure (for Ryerson). We consider that a success, because the numbers will go up together.”

Ryerson will host an ONWiE event with the Girls Guide of Ontario for engineering badge day on March 28.

Emily Joveski was a reporter at the Ryersonian. She has previously interned at CBC Radio, and completed her fourth year of studying journalism at Ryerson, focusing on radio reporting and documentary. She also works at CJRU, where she gets to help people in her community make great radio.