Vanessa Cherenfant felt the biases and stereotypes that surround engineering at a very young age, when she was gifted a Nintendo game, while her classmates would receive Barbie dolls or playhouses for their birthdays. Her parents would take her to software classes and she immediately fell in love with engineering. Despite all of the obstacles and societal boundaries placed in front of a black female entering the engineering industry, today Vanessa is the founder of Elysia, a real-time customer engagement platform for travel, as well as Officevibe, an employee engagement tool. Instead of conforming to these standards, Vanessa believes we should champion diversity.
Vanessa began her talk by introducing us to an example of the problem of diversity in engineering: only 20% of all engineering graduates are women, and only 60% of those go on to pursue a career in engineering. Before women even choose to enter an engineering program, they are discouraged by the fallacy that engineering is a male sport and that women will not succeed. In university programs in Canada, women make up only about ¼ of the class, leaving them to learn in an environment that may not seem inclusive or accepting. What’s more is when women do enter the industry, they are “actively discouraged, biased, and discriminated against,” said Vanessa. Why is diversity prevented in an area like engineering, where creative solutions shaped by unique perspectives are essential? The lack of representation of women in engineering illustrates just an example of the bigger picture.
Although it is true that we have progressed significantly in increasing diversity in the industry, the problem is still far from solved. Engineering is currently “85% male and 75% white” in North America. Numerous groups are underrepresented in the engineering field. However, Vanessa questioned, “how can we understand the need without the perspectives?” The problems we face and the various needs that exist today are complicated and diverse. The only way we can be successful in solving these tough problems is through bringing together different perspectives and backgrounds. Therefore, we need to champion diversity in order to progress.
Championing diversity may sound difficult at first, but we can practise it in everyday life. Vanessa Cherenfant outlined 5 basic steps to change the lack of diversity in engineering:
Recognize the problem, without any biases. Look at the bigger picture and understand the problem fully.
Practise empathy. Make a personal connection, instead of just sympathizing.
Learn to use your voice.
Acquire and cultivate diversity. Open yourself to different perspectives through travelling, or learning a language, for example.
Join groups championing diversity. University clubs (like “Women in Engineering” and “Engiqueers” at Western University) are great opportunities to accelerate this movement.
It is imperative that we take these steps to see change. Underrepresented groups should feel comfortable entering engineering and are essential in advancing engineering. Let us work together in championing diversity.