There is an urgent need to humanize engineering

If we want to attract and keep women in the engineering profession, we need to focus on why we build, not just what we build.

By Mary Wells, Patricia Owen, Suzanne Kresta and Rebecca Kresta

Thirty-four years ago on Dec. 6, 1989, 14 women lost their lives to a man who believed that his failure to gain entry into engineering gave him the right to kill women who had earned their place at the table. The shooting at Polytechnique Montréal was a horrific act of violence against women and against our profession.

As engineering leaders who each have a daughter in engineering, we pause on Dec. 6 to remember past tragedy - celebrate today - and consider the future.

In 1989 when we (mothers) were students, there were only 4,000 female engineering undergraduates in all of Canada, and they represented just 12 percent of the engineering undergraduate student population. Fast forward to today, when we (daughters) are now also in the field of engineering; there are over 22,000 female engineering students in Canada, and they represent almost 25 percent of the student body.

Since 1988, the participation of women in Canadian undergraduate engineering programs has multiplied 5.5 times. This is encouraging, but for real change to happen, more of our female graduates need to stay in the profession. As we commemorate, we must amplify the voices of our daughters and our shared dreams for the future of engineering.

The greater presence of women in our engineering programs is a strong indicator of a more positive and inclusive culture in engineering. This shift, moving from isolation in small numbers to a more inclusive and supportive work cultures – and ultimately to true belonging – is the dream of all of us. However, to fully enable this culture change, we believe it is urgent to change our professional approach.

If we want to attract and keep women in the engineering profession, we need to focus on why we build, not just what we build. Unless we listen to people who represent the social and environmental ecosystems surrounding the things we love to build and consider the impacts of the built environment on these living systems, our economy and the quality of our engineering work will both suffer.

It is no longer enough to focus solely on the math and physics that determine whether a bridge will stay standing. We must develop the tools – and welcome the colleagues – that can expand our understanding at the edges of our technical work. The location of the bridge must take into account urban planning, heritage sites, and bicycle commuters, as well as cars.

Embracing a culture of co-creation centered on the inclusion of human and environmental ecosystems is a deep cultural change that many engineering organizations are now embracing.

As deans, we think and talk more intentionally about the trust people have in the technology they use and the factors that lead them to trust or distrust technology. We guide new engineering students through conversations about inclusion and reconciliation.

Projects where upper-years students consult early and often with the people using the final product showcase the excitement of designers and end-users collaborating at all stages of development. Our industrial partners often report faster start-up times, lower costs, less rework and better products when users are part of the design team from the start of the project.

As an engineer, Rebecca recently built a hospital in a remote region of South Sudan where women can now have their babies in a safe environment. Essential design work included understanding the cultural safety of women using the latrines and negotiating a solution to a land claim.

Building tools for the future, Patricia will graduate with a dual degree in civil engineering and psychology in 2025. She believes using a design approach that puts people first is needed to achieve meaningful change and to ensure people are part of the design processes.

Softening the edges in engineering does not detract from the core technical excellence of the profession any more than a patient-centered team approach to medicine detracts from medical science.

The need for more women in our profession has never been greater.

Engineering is a team sport and as we hurtle towards a future infused with artificial intelligence and complicated by climate change and global instability, we need engineers who put humans at the centre of their approach to solving our most challenging problems.


Suzanne Kresta is the former dean of engineering at the University of Saskatchewan and her daughter, Rebecca Kresta, graduated from mechanical engineering at the University of Alberta.

Mary Wells is dean of Engineering at the University of Waterloo, and her daughter, Patricia Owen is an engineering student at McMaster University.