Love of math leads women to engineering careers

TORONTO — Soft skills will go a long way regardless of technology discipline.

That was one of the messages to a group of young women at the 3rd Annual Discover Engineering Career Conference held at Ryerson University Wednesday.

But while many of the engineers and IT professionals

that came to speak at the one day event mentioned the need for skills beyond what is taught in the classroom, the foundation for the interest in the engineering profession was a love of mathematics.

Melissa Chee, a graduate of McGill University’s computer engineering program, always enjoyed math and started university just as “computers were coming of age.” She found what she wanted to do through summer internships — her first two were with Manulife’s IT department. “What I really learned was I liked working with people.”

Chee began at Nortel four years ago as a systems engineer. “That was a great first job because it gave me exposure to technology that Nortel was-known for at the time — telephone systems.”

Chee has since broadened her horizons and for the past six months as worked in strategic marketing for Nortel’s wireless solutions, and credits her engineering undergrad degree for giving her the opportunity to beyond engineering. “It gives you analytic and interpersonal skills that you can leverage across other disciplines.”

Stephanie Cino, a Ryerson mechanical engineering graduate who now works at Bombardier Aerospace, said her best job to date was about four years ago, when she had to bring together 80 engineers for a critical project. “That was my first real experience bringing people together,” she said. “It’s something we do well.”

Cino told the assembled students that the possibilities for engineers are endless. “Your engineering skills will always be utilized.”

Dr. Lisa Buckman, project manager with Agilent Laboratories in Palo Alto, Calif. and the event’s keynote speaker, agreed that women do bring different soft skills to the table, but unlike others speaking at the event, she has not had any negative experiences being a minority in her profession. “I’ve had a very positive experience,” she told Computing Canada. “I’ve had very good male managers.”

Buckman said interpersonal skills are very hard to teach, and the writing and presentation skills are particularly important for those in the technology field because if you can’t present your work to your peers and managers, they won’t have a clear understanding of what you’re working on.”

Buckman also enjoyed math, but she didn’t want to major in it. “It was my love of math that led me to electrical engineering.”

One of the defining moments in her path to a career in technology was as she began seventh grade — no longer would she have one teacher for all classes. “This scared me. I needed to become organized,” she told the audience. Getting organized did bring her average grades up to A’s. “I did not get smarter overnight. Extraordinary results are often achieved by normal people.”

It was in Buckman’s third year of university when she realized she enjoyed working the lab, thanks to an internship at AT&T Bell Labs. “At this point I fell in love with communications.”

Buckman said that while training is important, she had plenty of other advice for young women considering a career in technology.

“Socialize,” Buckman said. “Those skills help a lot in the working world. Seek out role models. They’re everywhere.”

And like she did, Buckman recommends coming up with a system to stay organized.

According to a Ryerson study, women comprise 55 per cent of all undergraduate students in Canadian universities, yet only 20 per cent of students enrolled in appliance science and engineering program are women, and fewer than six per cent of Canadian professional engineers are women.

First year Ryerson student Tania Petrov’s interest in aerospace engineering came from a love of planes, she said, but sees the lack of women in the field as a challenge. “I was drawn to it because there aren’t a lot of women.”

It was the same career conference last year that solidified her career choice and led to volunteer her time to help with this year’s event.

Buckman estimates that about 20 to 30 per cent of engineering undergrad students in U.S. universities are female. “There’s no reason that the number of women in the field can’t increase.”

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Gary Hilson
Gary Hilson
Gary Hilson is a Toronto-based freelance writer who has written thousands of words for print and pixel in publications across North America. His areas of interest and expertise include software, enterprise and networking technology, memory systems, green energy, sustainable transportation, and research and education. His articles have been published by EE Times, SolarEnergy.Net, Network Computing, InformationWeek, Computing Canada, Computer Dealer News, Toronto Business Times and the Ottawa Citizen, among others.

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