The engineering of a female pioneer

When Monique Frize enrolled in the engineering program at the University of Ottawa in the early ’60s, the dean called her father and asked him to talk his daughter out of it. After all, the dean argued, being an engineer was no career for a woman.

“”Everybody, including my own family, said girls

don’t become engineers,”” says Frize, who is now a professor in the School of Information Technology at the University of Ottawa and also a professor in the department of systems and computer engineering at Carleton University.

But the young woman with an insatiable curiosity for all things scientific was undaunted. Four years later, Frize earned the

premiere distinction in a 40-year career filled with accolades: She became the first Canadian woman to graduate from the University of Ottawa with a Bachelor of Applied Engineering degree.

The road to success for this pioneering woman, however, has been anything but smooth. As is the case with any woman in a predominantly male line of work, Frize has battled her share of discrimination over the years.

“”When I first went to a company that is good today, but wasn’t back in in 1970, I asked if they had flex hours because I wanted to have a family,”” she says. “”They didn’t hire me,”” noting several of her contemporaries were “”pushed out the door”” when they decided to start their families.

Despite her long list of awards, Frize says male engineers are primarily the recipients of grant awards and accolades.

Let’s hear it for the boys

“”I still see most of the awards going to men and lots of qualified women who don’t get them,”” she says. “”The Canadian Research Chairs are going to men. Unfortunately, it’s still true that women’s work is less valued than men’s. Women want to do work to benefit humanity,”” and that work is not often enough recognized in the form of grant awards, she adds.

“”My work is with saving babies’ lives with doctors and childhood injury research — all to do with people and making the world a better place,”” she says.

On the day she spoke to Computing Canada, Frize and a colleague were awarded a $150,000 grant from the Social and Humanities Research Council (SHERC) to research the barriers to women in engineering and offer suggestions on how to make the delivery of engineering programs more woman-friendly.

“”At the end of three years, we’ll be making some serious recommendations for faculties of engineering across the country,”” Frize explains. “”There are some good deans out there now, but there are some also who think there are no problems.””

The research speaks to a problem that has long been debated in the tech sector: Why aren’t more girls interested in careers in engineering, technology and science?

Frize says it’s not a question of interest, but rather one of girls not being able to see the human connection in these types of jobs. She says on a recent visit to a class of Grade 6 students, she had the opportunity to ignite the curiosity of many girls.

“”Girls don’t know you can use technology to help people,”” she says. “”I explained to these students how I help humanity in my work, and I could see the girls were really capturing that message.””

Frize says despite decades of progress, there’s still a perception in society that engineering is “”a man’s thing.””

“”You won’t believe it’s 2004 and there’s still the Aristotle approach -– that women’s minds are less than men’s minds,”” she says. “”If women are told that enough times, they’re going to believe that’s not for them.

For the world to change and offer more opportunities to women in the fields of science, technology and engineering, Frize says education is key, and that education has to happen early. She also says more women need to take their place on committees that make decisions regarding grant applications in the fields of science and engineering. And those women, Frize says, must be pro-women.

“”We need women who want to be agents of change; we don’t need more men in skirts.””

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