EUS & Faculty of Engineering Present a Forum on Diversity & Inclusivity in Engineering

On Thursday October 9th, the EUS and Faculty of Engineering welcomed all students to participate in a forum on diversity and inclusivity in engineering.

Being a part of engineering’s female minority, I thought to myself: “Well, I should probably go to that… and at the very least, I’m sure there will be food.” Not only was there an abundance of food, but there were also well-informed panellists and speakers that forced me to rethink my situation at McGill.

The keynote speaker was Dr. Karen Tonso from Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. While it’s clear that Wayne State has its own unique set of diversity and equity problems being in the Midwest and Detroit specifically, Dr. Tonso made a point that there is a universal problem in recognizing inclusivity and equity issues. She claims that society has “trained (us) to ignore certain things,” and as a result we appear blind to many alarming situations.

Dr. Tonso explained that during her research studies, many students could describe “various enormously inequitable circumstances” happening all over campus, inhibiting women, LGBT, and handicapped individuals. However, when asked specifically about equity in engineering on campus, students often replied, “we are all equal engineers.”

In short, Karen did such a wonderful job of enraging me. She described situations in her study where certain men believed women in engineering needed “girl points” as preferential treatment to succeed, as well as “sorority woman” being one of the only positively-viewed female attributes as a student. Dr. Tonso gave me a reminder that although I feel comfortable and safe at McGill, I may not have the same experience elsewhere for graduate school.

The people she described seemed fake to me—fake, because I have not yet encountered them. Or, perhaps, maybe I have encountered them at McGill. Am I yet another person that has been trained to ignore and suppress situations where I was offended or uncomfortable?

The more I thought about it, the more I remembered specific events where I felt uncomfortable by remarks that were intended as jokes. Instead of speaking up, I chose the easier route of laughing and shrugging it off. Charmaine Lyn, one of the panellists at the forum, also brought up the point that sometimes “defusing a situation can cause more harm than the initial aggression.”

Truthfully, I don’t really know the proper way to tell someone that they’re being inconsiderate or hurtful, other than directly saying those words. If I were to bet, I’d say that my bluntness wouldn’t go that far with many people. It was precisely for people like myself that Charmaine suggested training for professors, TAs, frosh leaders and students in how to confront and remedy inclusivity situations.

Along with inclusivity training for school officials, there was one other suggestion that really stuck with me. Dr. Tonso offered the theory that respect is just as noteworthy as academics, and should thus be treated as such. There are endless amounts of scholarships and awards praising academic success. While academia is certainly something to be praised, why aren’t there more awards and scholarships aimed at equity, behaviour, and character? Praising equitable actions is certainly an effective way to promote equal opportunities.

As a whole, the panel and discussion were effective in opening my eyes to both problems and solutions to equity and diversity issues on campus. Furthermore, each individual of the panel brought a unique background and perspective to the discussion of equity in engineering. That being said, I couldn’t help but notice that all four panellists were women, as well as the keynote speaker.

Understandably, there’s nothing worse than being told by a bunch of white men that there are equal opportunities for females in engineering. Nevertheless, being in such a male-dominated faculty, I felt a definite absence—more than half of the forum attendees were female, which is clearly not an accurate representation of the engineering faculty.

I do think that many men in engineering would have something important to say about how equity affects their own learning experience in the classroom. I believe it is just as detrimental for males as it is for females to be in a classroom of nearly homogenous individuals, taught by a likely male professor. Where are the exposure, the grit, and the diversity?

As women continue to infiltrate the engineering field, the faculty has adapted and improved many of its learning conditions; however, there is always room for growth when it comes to equity and diversity.

The best advice I have learned is to avoid turning social identifications into boundaries or limitations. Comedic genius Mindy Kaling commented on this principle of categorization beautifully, in response to her own stance in the comedy world:

“I never want to be called the funniest Indian female comedian that exists. I feel like I can go head-to-head with the best white, male comedy writers that are out there. Why would I want to self-categorize myself into a smaller group than I’m able to compete in?”

Nobody wants to be known as the “best female geotechnician” or the “smartest gay computer programmer.” Schools and businesses alike should recognize these social differences while exhibiting the strengths of each individual, with full regards to their performance as a student or employee. That is the equity that we seek.

 

Kathryn Kaspar

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