The Ontario Society of Professional Engineers (OSPE), after receiving a report that chronicles widespread systemic bias in the profession, has announced a four-point plan to deal with the problem.
The study reported on views from engineers, engineering graduates and hiring managers who confirmed the prevalence of bias so pervasive that engineers from underrepresented groups are leaving the profession in large numbers.
In announcing the action plan, the OSPE quoted results of a previous survey that found one in three women in engineering currently get paid less than their male counterparts; one in four female engineers experience harassment, discrimination or bullying at work; and 44 per cent of men compared to 18 per cent of women claimed to have never felt barriers to workplace advancement.
“Women and other underrepresented groups are being held back from contributing to the vital work Ontarians need them to do,” said OSPE president and chair Rejeanne Aimey, a mechanical engineer who is a senior consultant at KPMG. “Our members’ voices are also clear — it’s time for action. It’s time for leadership. It’s time for real change.”
Aimey pointed to one specific source of problems.
Elder statesmen in control
“This situation is stark,” she said. “The elder statemen are still very much in control. They are in the later stages of their career and they sit in positions of power when it comes to the profession. They direct and dictate what happens. That is why in the workplace the numbers are so stark.”
The four steps call for taking concrete actions and reaffirming that diversity and inclusion are core values; offering regular diversity and inclusion training; launching a new Diversity and Inclusion Champion Award; and taking steps to convene a summit with all Ontario engineering leaders in 2021 to develop an industry-wide action plan.
“It’s a start,” said Aimey, calling the plan “micro steps” but better than the all-talk, no action attitude dominating until now.
“There has not been a lot of traction and so in order to get this issue revolved, in my opinion, there has to be a drastic change in how things are done. The existing people in positions of power are not willing, in my opinion, to step aside to get things done.”
Aimey made it clear she was referring to boardrooms of private engineering firms, not leadership within the OSPE.
OSPE CEO Sandro Perruzza is very supportive of the inclusion initiative, she said, and it was former OSPE president Jonathan Hack who first encouraged her and invited her to set up the OSPE’s first diversity and inclusion task force in 2017.
Perruzza said in a statement, “This is a complex problem, with deep cultural and historical roots. We are calling on the best of Ontario’s engineers to join with us to break the cycles of prejudice and bias that we all know are there.”
Young males are supportive
Aimey said the young men who are entering the profession tend to be very supportive of their female colleagues.
“They see the value of the different perspectives that some of these women bring to the table. They see they are eager and they meet them half way.”
Statistics published last year by the Ontario Network of Women in Engineering found that 24.4 per cent of undergraduate engineering students across Ontario that year were female, and 12.8 per cent of engineers were female.
Aimey was the only woman in her engineering class at the University of Western Ontario 20 years ago. Not only are the numbers poor, she said, but retention is worse.
“When I think of most female engineers and engineering students I know, most are not in the profession,” she said. “Most of them are not sticking around.”
The new female graduates “are very eager, they get jobs, and then they have to go into the workplace and they have to deal with the culture that is there, as a result of those men that are still at the helm. And they can’t deal with it, or they do not want to deal with it.”
Aimey said women and new Canadians face the same problem: accessing existing networks.
“There is a particular ecosystem where you have a lot of graduates from international schools who come to Ontario with a breadth of experience but are not hired for multiple years because they don’t have right networks,” she said.
Over the next year, Aimey said, the OSPE hopes to engage engineers, Professional Engineers Ontario, government officials, engineering school deans, the Engineering Student Societies’ Council of Ontario and the Association of Consulting Engineering Companies – Ontario among other stakeholder groups to come together to deal with problems in the sector.
Aimey also suggested the lack of diversity has become an issue within the federal government, expressed in recent years at a diversity forum the OSPE holds annually in Ottawa. That has a connect to the current pandemic, she said.
“If the government is going to be putting funds into certain types of initiatives, it is important that everyone who is here who pays taxes, who contributes, is able to do so equally. This is why we are looking at a diverse perspectives and trying to shed some light in these issues so we can get moving in engineering.”
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