What’s the engineering type?

During a recent twitter chat with the Big Beacon community, the question came up of whether in order to be successful in the profession, an engineer will always need to be “a certain type” of person. It got me to thinking: what is that engineering type?

(By the way the Big Beacon twitter chats are every Wednesday evening at 8 pm ET – please join us to discuss the present and future of engineering education! We touch on all sorts of interesting topics and welcome your voice to the conversation.)

Is there an ‘engineering type’?

image via @theSecondMrHan

Are engineers all the same? image via @theSecondMrHan

This is a really interesting question; on the one hand we want to say that we are open and inclusive and that all types are welcome.  On the other hand it would tough to ignore the fact that many engineers do tend to have similar personalities and traits in common.  I have had this experience at engineering networking events and conferences – there is often an instant recognition in meeting someone who shares your professional background.

The value of defining an engineering ‘type’ or identity is that it makes our culture stronger, makes the stories easier to tell.  It’s kind of cool knowing that you belong to a group – an engineering family if you will.  Even though they may be strangers they share common ground with you, care about many of the things you care about, face many of the same challenges, and maybe even share some of your personality quirks!

Another perspective

Then again some engineers may not share those ‘engineer-type’ traits – does that mean that they can’t or shouldn’t be engineers?  The risk of defining this culture too narrowly that we stop being inclusive and open-minded about the value that other perspectives and thinking styles could bring. We risk missing out on the benefits of diversity – known among other things to be an absolute necessity for innovation, creativity and profitability in business.

More specifically to the engineering profession, we risk becoming too insular and isolated if we define our identity too narrowly.  This is bad for business.  How are we going to serve the needs of society without having them represented within our own ranks? I was recently quoted in a special report about Engineering in Canada (check bottom of page 2) about this very topic.

A diversity of diversities

Since I am a woman, my comments are often taken to be about having more women in engineering, but I believe that all types of diversity (personality, strengths, traits, interests, age, as well as race, ethnicity and gender) are beneficial – I would even say crucial to the future of our profession.

Every type as the engineer type

As Big Beacon founder Dave Goldberg tweeted last night:  #BigBeacon would like to see every type be ‘the engineering type’.  In the professional field made up of ‘Whole New Engineers’ an envisioned in the Big Beacon manifesto, provided that a student has the ability and the willingness to work hard to solve important problems, constantly make things better, work in teams, design the future and make the world a better place, the engineering profession will take one look at them and say:  Yup – that’s our type!

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Engineering in Canada: A special report

Yesterday a Special Report in the Globe and Mail: Engineering in Canada June 6 came out.  For our international readers, the Globe and Mail is one of Canada’s most important national newspapers.

I was honoured to have my comments included in it (check out bottom of page 2!) because I am passionate about inspiring and supporting the next generation of engineers, and I am excited by what they will bring to the table which will transform our profession and, by extension, our world.  

I’m also lucky enough to have worked and volunteers with many of the awesome organizations mentioned in the report, like Actua Canada, the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers and Engineers Without Borders.

All the stories in this report are incredible stories in their own way but here’s the one that best screams headline in my mind:

By the numbers
16,000:  Number of new engineering jobs due to investments in resource and infrastructure projects,
between 2011 and 2020
95,000: Number of engineers that will retire by 2020
Source: Engineers Canada, 2012

So, next generation, are you listening?  You have a LOT of work to do.  Good thing you are so smart!  The conversations you are having with yourself now about your own goals might seem trivial, but you are part of a VERY important big picture.

Enjoy this report and please leave your comments, questions and contributions to this extremely important and exciting dialogue.

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3 Things about engineering that Marc Lepine will never know

Twenty-three years ago today, a national tragedy occurred in Montreal.  In case you don’t recall:

“On Dec. 6, 1989, Marc Lepine entered Ecole Polytechnique, a Montreal-based engineering school, separated the men from the women and then shot and killed 14 female students. He also injured nine other women and four men, before turning the gun on himself. Lepine left a note blaming feminists for ruining his life.”  from ctvnews.ca

Before I was an engineer

I was not quite a teenager at the time, but I remember my mother’s reaction; that it was a hateful and cowardly act by a deranged, angry man who hated women.  Years later when I became an engineer, the incident took on new significance; these women could have been my classmates.  We were only one decade, and one Canadian province, apart.

These 14 female engineering students were picked out because their choice of program made them feminists, in Marc Lepine’s mind, and he resented them for taking a spot that should have been his.  He had applied to Ecole Polytechnique twice and been rejected because he lacked two course pre-requisites.

A national Rorschach test

To this day much angry debate carries on about whether female engineers are uniquely qualified to ‘claim’ the effects of the so-called Montreal Massacre, or whether it is better viewed as part of a wider symptom of all violence against all women.   Or is it about feminism?  Or is it about gun control?  Or the fact he was raised by a single mother?  Everyone seems to have their own lens on the incident, and their own opinion on what to do in response.

A faulty logic chain

My own take: One man’s faulty logic said that he had been victimized, so he acted to even the score in an unthinkable way.  His logic went:  I did not get what I want + Women did get what I want = Women are to blame for me not getting what I want.   I hate not getting what I want = I hate women.

Had even one piece of that logic chain been dislodged, he may have stayed home that day.  We might have those women in our boardrooms, factories, design studios, schools, courtrooms.  As it is, we’ll never know what they might have done.

What I’d have said

When I think about what went through his mind that day, or in the days and weeks before, I wish I’d been able to tell him three things:

1) When one door closes, another door opens.  If you really want to be an engineer, get the courses, and apply again next year.  Lots of people have difficult in academic settings then go on to thrive in their profession; myself included.  Or maybe check out a related career:  a trade, a technology profession, a technician discipline or a drafting or design-related career; lots of overlap with engineers in terms of skills and opportunities.  Engineering is no ‘better’ than any other profession, and it’s not for everyone.

2) It’s a really good thing that there are women in engineering.  Women bring a diversity of thought, approach and strength to the profession that allows its benefits to reach more people.  Teams work better with women on them.  Many women engineers become excellent mentors and helpers to peers, male and female.   The same argument can be made for more visible minorities and new immigrants since they bring a perspective through their life experience.  Also, they make things much more interesting and vibrant!

3) There is more than enough space – for both genders – within our profession.  There are lots of opportunities and tons of work to do.  No need to fear women entering the profession because there is actually a shortage of engineers globally.  As the planet nears seven billion people and technology continues to change the way we live, work and connect to each other, we need more smart, divergent thinkers to solve ever more complicated problems.

Whether it’s designing gear for the next space mission to Mars, making companies work smarter, faster, cleaner and safer, or breaking down systemic issues that keep billions living in poverty, there is lots of work to do.

And, if I may be permitted to add in one last more defiant personal observation: we women engineers are tough.  We may leave the profession to raise babies, go to law school, volunteer, and start our own businesses, but we will never stop being engineers in response to hate and fear.

That’s just not what we’re made of.


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