A woman who knows her place

It was a humbling experience, as I had always been a fairly good student, so I was shattered when Mrs. MacGillivray declined my request to stay after school and help me comprehend the incomprehensible. She more or less told me not to sweat it. After all, she reasoned, math was not something I,

or any other young woman, would need to enjoy a fulfilling life. Though I was too shy then to question her further, the message I gleaned couldn’t have been clearer: math is a subject intended only for those who are planning careers in medicine, science, engineering or technology. In other words, math is for boys.

As it turns out, I found a rewarding career that doesn’t require me to fully appreciate the Pythagorean Theorem, but it makes me wonder how many other young women are under the impression that careers that demand mathematical prowess are not for them. If enrolments in information technology courses and university engineering programs are any indication, there are quite a lot of us.

Maybe there aren’t enough role models to inspire more young woman to consider careers in traditionally male-dominated fields. Or perhaps there’s a lack of information on those role models.

I recently had an inspiring conversation with a woman I wish I’d met 20 years ago as I walked away from Mrs. MacGillivray’s class feeling utterly defeated.

Monique Frize, Ph.D., is a true pioneer. She was the first Canadian woman to graduate from the University of Ottawa with a degree in engineering. She was also the first holder of the Northern Telecom/NSERC Women in Engineering Chair at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton (see story on p. 24). To say she’s passionate about promoting the cause of women in leadership roles in the fields of science and engineering is grossly understating her efforts.

In addition to her full-time teaching jobs at Carleton University and the University of Ottawa, Frize has received numerous government grants to study the root causes for the dearth of women opting for careers in engineering and related fields. She frequently lectures on the topic, both in the university setting and to students in Grades 5 to 12.

Frize told Computing Canada she thinks the reason more young women aren’t enticed to investigate careers in science, engineering and technology is because they don’t see the human connection. When she talks to grade-school students, she explains, in real terms, how her work as an engineer helps humanity. Recently, she took a pacemaker into the class and told students that by fine-tuning that instrument, engineers help save people’s lives. And she recounted other stories — about how engineers use science to solve real life problems, such as stopping poisons from going into our rivers and taking toxic ink out of newspapers.

Frize says it’s at this point she often sees a light bulb go on for the girls, because for the first time, many of them understand how excelling in mathematics could be a rite of passage into a much richer world.

The world needs more women like Monique Frize — and it needs them now.

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