I had always enjoyed math and physics and it seemed engineering, being a combination of these two fields, would be a natural progression for me. My high school guidance counsellor, however, told me engineering would be a lot of work, and it was a male dominated profession. He then suggested I take a general science program until I decided what I really wanted to do. I did know what I wanted to do and I started studying engineering that fall.

Several women engineers told the CCWE about who influenced them to choose engineering. Some, like the young woman above, were not encouraged--or even discouraged--by teachers and guidance counsellors. Others spoke of teachers who were responsible for their choice of engineering.

I pursued math and physics through to the Grade 12 level. My high school physics teacher was a marvellous teacher who was himself an engineer and he suggested that I should consider engineering as a career. The idea of challenging a male-dominated field was exciting. I was apprehensive about my lack of engineering skills--I didn't tinker with cars, I didn't read Popular Mechanics, and I couldn't even use a hammer successfully.

One woman discovered engineering almost by accident.

Throughout high school, I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do except that I wanted a profession. I attended career fairs and talked to the counsellors and my parents, but engineering was never suggested to me. I don't think it would have occurred to me at all except that my Physics 12 class made a field trip to the metallurgical labs at the university.

An associate dean of engineering gave his perspective on the status of career counselling.

Parents, guidance counsellors and teachers often fail to associate girls with engineering careers, and fail to encourage them to consider the appropriate course choices. Such problems begin in elementary schools. In addition, even a woman who has all of the prerequisites, and who is on the point of choosing among science-based programs at university, is often told that engineering is a 'male-dominated' profession (James McCowan, Queen's University, Ottawa Forum).

Proper and timely career counselling can influence the decisions young women make about careers. The greatest care must be taken to counsel appropriately, that is to make sure young people are guided to fields that suit their talents and interests. It is vital that women students receive information and counselling that is free of bias and gender stereotypes. Counsellors should point out that women are still pioneers in the engineering field, but that most women engineers find their work enjoyable and challenging. It should also be explained that the profession is changing and becoming more welcoming to women as their numbers increase.

If teachers and guidance counsellors are to do an effective job counselling students about choice of high school subjects and careers, they must be aware of the factors that influence the area of study and career choices of women. A survey by the Halifax School District Guidance Department found the main reason given by women students for not choosing engineering was a dislike or lack of interest in physics--which was seen as an integral part of engineering--and a preference for life sciences (Coady, Atlantic Region Forum). Over half the women said they lacked information about engineering. Other reasons included indecisiveness about future goals and a belief that bachelor programs in arts and science are broader programs; and the idea that engineering is "dull and boring." The survey found that male students choose engineering because it is interesting, offers high-paying jobs, has good job prospects and is a prestigious profession; further, boys were encouraged by engineers and viewed engineering as the way of the future.

Female high school students seem to be discouraged from studying engineering more than their male classmates. In a study at Simon Fraser University, 54 percent of females and 16 percent of males indicated someone had tried to dissuade them from entering engineering (Dench, 1990). Women may also be deterred from studying engineering by the perception that students need extraordinarily high grades to succeed at engineering studies. Women students are more likely than men to cite grades as an important factor influencing their decision about engineering. (Chisholm, CCWE Conference; Pomfret, CCWE Conference)

We must show young women the many significant contributions made to society by engineers--and a way to use traditional feminine characteristics in a non-traditional job. (Linda Lefler, P.Eng., Atlantic Region Forum)

Women tend to prefer careers that allow them to help others, and female students interested in the sciences tend toward the life sciences and careers in medicine or animal care. Guidance counsellors need to understand how engineers, such as environmental and biomedical engineers, make the world a better place. They also need to know that engineering studies offer a broad education, and that engineers work in industry, research, management and education.

Engineering is perhaps the most liberal education offered at a university--it includes engineering, science, arts, law and administration. Engineering is perhaps the least restrictive professional education--graduates go on to a wide range of activities such as teaching, running a business, or working for government, as well as all the traditional engineering roles. (Bruce Cooke, Association of Professional Engineers of Saskatchewan, Prairie Region Forum)

Enhancing guidance counselling

Many guidance counsellors do not have sufficient time to do an adequate job of career counselling because of other demands such as counselling students about social and life crisis issues. The guidance counselling element must be strengthened throughout the entire education system by hiring more guidance counsellors, updating literature on career choices, and instituting computerized career counselling programs. Computer programs offer an alternative way for girls to explore careers in engineering; they should be developed and brought to the attention of teachers, guidance counsellors and students. Program users should be trained in their effective use.

Classroom teachers and guidance counsellors should be made aware of the applications of mathematics and science in technology and engineering. By acquiring a greater understanding of the profession of engineering, guidance counsellors can help ensure women with interests in and aptitudes for engineering are informed and encouraged to pursue an engineering career. Current information on the variety of engineering fields is usually available from provincial associations of professional engineers.

Preparing girls for careers

The girls' focus on the few years in which they will be the mothers of very young children--to the neglect of the 30 or more years they will spend in the labour force--surely tells us that children must be made aware of the reality that girls, as well as boys, will be in remunerative employment for a very long time. (Dormer Ellis, P.Eng., Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Ottawa Forum)

Proper counselling and career education of girls must deal with their perceptions of self, the role of work in their future lives, gender equity and bias in the workplace, and other issues pertaining to career-related decision making. If guidance counsellors are to counsel girls and young women appropriately, they need to be aware of the changing role of women. The economic reality is that most women will spend many years in the workforce and will need a career to provide them with independence and financial security. The probability of divorce is high and most single-parent families are headed by women. Women as a group earn less than men because most women are in lower-paid blue and pink collar jobs. According to the Canadian Teachers' Federation, most career education directed towards adolescent girls assumes they are labouring under "a Cinderella-like 1960s model of dependence" (Robertson, 1990).

Finally, the important task of career counselling should not be left exclusively to guidance counsellors, but be shared by teachers and representatives from universities and professional associations. Parents, through home and school meetings, should also be made aware of the current career opportunities for their daughters, especially in the engineering field.


5. The CCWE recommends that teachers and guidance counsellors provide career information and guidance free of gender-bias about engineering and related fields to all students, so that women with interests in and aptitudes for engineering are informed, encouraged and supported.

Schedule for success: