For the past decade, Kathryn Reilander would stand at the front of her classroom and survey her newest crop of students, struggling to find a female face in the crowd.
Reilander is a professor at Algonquin College in Ottawa and every year in her electrical engineering technician program, she only sees an average of eight women in a class of roughly 200. But for the program’s next incoming class, she’s hoping for a dramatic spike in the percentage of women — perhaps as high as 30 per cent, if all goes according to plan.
On Friday, Algonquin College is announcing a bold — and controversial — new approach for increasing the number of women in some of its male-dominated programs: a pilot project that will reserve 30 per cent of classroom seats for female applicants.
The three-year pilot, called “We Saved You a Seat,” guarantees admission to women who meet the minimum admission standards for four of the college’s most popular technology programs: electrical engineering technician, mechanical engineering technology, electro-mechanical engineering technician and computer systems technician.
The initiative is part of a broader push by post-secondary institutions to close the gender gap in so-called STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and math), where women are woefully under-represented.
But the strategy of earmarking seats for female students is something schools have largely avoided. Some say this is due to fears over potential backlash — a particularly acute concern in today’s fraught political climate, where debates around gender and equity issues are increasingly polarized.
While other post-secondary schools are taking more indirect approaches to encourage female enrolment, Algonquin appears to be the first in Canada to actually reserve spots for women in STEM classrooms — or, at least, the first to advertise that they’re doing so.
“What’s really important to know is that we’re absolutely not lowering standards,” said Sarah Gauen, Algonquin College’s inclusion and diversity specialist, who spearheaded the pilot. “We are just making sure that the women who are interested, qualified and applying are entering into our program; that they’re not getting screened out due to any other barriers.”
One of those barriers is the oft-cited problem of women who exclude themselves from consideration, perhaps due to lack of confidence, a reluctance to study in a male-dominated environment, or the assumption that certain disciplines are better-suited for men. The pilot hopes to mitigate such concerns and encourage women who are feeling hesitant to at least consider these programs and apply, Gauen said. “If you’re qualified, and you’re a woman, you’re in,” she said.
Applicants still need to meet or exceed the basic requirements, which often include specific high school courses in math or science. On average, each of the four programs register between 79 and 277 students a year and fewer than 10 per cent are women, according to the school’s statistics — though the female students graduate at higher rates than their male counterparts.
If Algonquin College doesn’t receive enough female applicants to meet the 30 per cent goal, the school will reopen admissions to male applicants to ensure there are no empty seats, Gauen said. But she says early numbers from the current application process are already showing high demand; for the computer systems technician program, the college has already started making offers to qualified female applicants and if they all accept, women will already account for 23 per cent of the classroom when the semester starts in May.
Gauen said the pilot will include parallel initiatives to support female students, including new bursaries, mentorship programs, and training for faculty to give them tools for creating truly supportive and gender-inclusive classrooms.
“It’s not quite so simple that if you build it they will come,” she said. “So we’re going to get (women) in the door and we’re going to wrap our arms around them.”
Gauen said the school chose 30 per cent as its target because research has shown this percentage to represent a “critical mass,” a tipping point where minority groups can meaningfully shift the culture of a classroom, workplace or industry.
Other schools and industry leaders are also setting targets for increasing women in STEM, though most are basing their strategies on awareness campaigns, mentorship networks or outreach work with high schools. Engineers Canada has a “30 by 30” campaign aimed at raising the percentage of newly licensed female engineers to 30 per cent by 2030 (currently, the figure is at 17.4 per cent). The University of British Columbia has a goal of reaching 50 per cent female enrolment in engineering by 2020 and York University’s engineering school is pushing to become the first in Canada to achieve gender parity amongst its student population.
But Algonquin College’s approach is particularly aggressive, said Kim Jones, chair of the Ontario Network of Women in Engineering. And with that comes the risk of backfire.
“It is, I think, a controversial approach,” she said. “(Other) approaches have typically not been as aggressive, partly because there have been concerns about backlash effects.”
One potential consequence is that male students will resent their female counterparts and perceive them as being less qualified or receiving special treatment, Jones said. This could foster a classroom environment that ultimately proves more unwelcoming or hostile — thus exacerbating the “chilly climate” problem often blamed for driving women out of STEM disciplines.
“I absolutely wish them good luck in their initiative and I’m very interested to see what the results are like,” Jones said. “But I think it’s not new to see backlash, and that backlash can be very damaging for the students who experience it.”
Jones said Algonquin College will need to work “very hard” to ensure a welcoming and inclusive environment for female students. This is especially true given the current social climate where identity issues have become so fraught, said Liette Vasseur, past president of the Canadian Coalition of Women in Engineering, Science, Trades and Technology.
She said Algonquin College will also have to work hard to ensure the pilot gets buy-in from professors and instructors, not just students. “I hope that they already have a high level of social acceptability from the faculty members,” she said. “I’m sorry to say this, but I know many faculty members in universities who do not care (about this issue) — and in many cases, it’s not only the men. In some cases it’s women.”
Gauen recognizes the potential for backlash but doesn’t believe a fear of changing the status quo is a good enough reason to shy away from creating more space for women. She believes technology programs offer great career options for women; electrical engineering technologists, for example, enjoy a lot of autonomy and offer starting salaries of at least $50,000, with the potential to hit six figures not long after graduating, according to Reilander.
Gauen pointed to research that gender-diverse classrooms also have positive impacts on male students, teaching them the “soft skills” they need to interact with women in the workplace, or making them more attractive to employers who care about job candidates with diversity skills.
“We are still saving 70 per cent of the seats for men. So this is still in the vast majority,” she said. “This isn’t a win-lose scenario; this is gender equity making things better for everybody.”
Algonquin College student Violet Charbonneau thinks the pilot project will go a long way towards encouraging other women to apply. As a technician student who aspires to get her electrical engineering technology diploma, the 27-year-old sometimes feels lonely in her classrooms, where she’s often either the only woman or just one of two.
Charbonneau sometimes refrains from speaking up or asking questions in class, for fear of drawing even more attention to herself when she already “sticks out like a sore thumb.”
“The guys in the classroom currently have each other and they get all the support they could want,” she said. “I think it’s going to be really great for women to feel the same way.”
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Jennifer Yang is a Toronto-based reporter covering identity and inequality. Follow her on Twitter: @jyangstar