Is it 2015 in tech and engineering yet?

Because it’s 2015.” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau used these words to explain his decision to opt for gender equality in his newly inaugurated cabinet — a first in Canadian history.

Last winter, the University of Toronto announced another record in gender equality: 30.6 per cent of first-year undergraduates enrolled in engineering programs were, for the first time ever, women. While this was celebrated as a major gain in correcting the historic disparity between male and female enrollment in engineering, it is notable that the tech field now lags behind the federal cabinet in terms of gender equality substantially. I spoke with U of T students in tech and engineering in order to gain their perspectives on the unequal gender distribution in their programs and the tensions that can consequently ensue.

I made this car

Nicole D’lyma is a fourth-year electrical engineering student. Last year, she led a team of 17 students representing Canada at the World Solar Challenge. Together, they designed and built a solar powered car.

When the team took their creation to events, however, D’lyma notes times when she and her other female teammates were mistaken for showgirls promoting the vehicle.

“[J]ust being in engineering, and being on the solar car team, and being one of the leaders as well, people… seem kind of surprised when they hear that a girl is in charge of all this,” D’lyma said.

D’lyma described these people as “pleasantly surprised” to discover her role in the project. While those making these kinds of comments may not be intended to be sexist or demeaning, D’lyma feels that such situations arise due to the stereotype of the typical male engineer. This idea is far from innocuous.

Amanda Bell, an undergraduate student and president of the University of Toronto Computer Science Student Union (CSSU), has also come into contact with these attitudes.

Bell recalled an incident at a university party, where, upon discovering that she had scored a lucrative internship at Google, another student replied, “You only got it because you’re a girl.”

“ … [H]e knew nothing about my resume or what personal projects I did or what my grades are… I don’t necessarily think that’s the [majority‘s mindset], but the reality is a lot of people think that way,” Bell said.

Anam Alvi, another CSSU member and a second-year computer science student, added that this way of thinking is endemic, and harmful because it dismisses the progress women have made.

“There are a lot of really stupid jokes about girls being diversity hires. People say it without any [bad] intentions but the fact is that they say it without thinking that there’s anything wrong about it. They don’t realize how stupid they sound,” Alvi said. This discourse, however misguided, still has its effects. “If I ever get hired for something, at the back of my mind it’s always going to be like ‘I was a diversity hire,’” she added.

“I don’t belong here”

Women in engineering and tech also report a host of subtle problems with the program’s predominantly male culture. “If I’m ever around a group of guys, I’ll have a lot of pressure to not mess up. Because then they’ll be like ‘She’s a minority, she’s a girl so obviously she’s an idiot,” Alvi said.

“[Y]ou don’t want to ask questions because you don’t want a guy to have that impression of you, and that’s really harmful because asking questions is how you grow, it’s how you learn and how you [become] better,” added Bell.

This experience can be more than a little disheartening.

“I found it very difficult, my whole first year actually,” said Alvi. “I still feel sometimes like just because I’m a girl, I feel like I don’t belong here, like I’m in the wrong place and I’m not a part of the community,” said Alvi. She points to  the self-consciousness that comes with being a minority and the persistent mocking from her peers — probably intended as playful, but ultimately harmful to her mental health.

Part of the solution to this problem, according to Bell and Alvi, will be opening up a dialogue within the community to address these day-to-day experiences.

“ …[P}eople will say they want equality for women but they won’t talk about the small things, they won’t talk about the stigma around it, about the small comments and why they’re wrong and why they’re harmful to women,” explained Alvi.

Both women agree that most of their male peers don’t seem to think there is any problem with how things are. Alvi recalls getting into arguments with peers when Bell’s proposal for gender sensitivity training in the CSSU that was shut down. The two main counter points, she explained, were that such a program wouldn’t make a difference, and that it was unnecessary. This is evidence, she explained, of the fact that without serious discussion, these issues are left  unrecognized.

Bell recalls another point of tension which arose during her time interning at Google. The women in the company were given “assertiveness training” as an attempt to combat sexism, but the men weren’t involved in the workshop. To Bell, this was a major omission. “I wish they bombarded the guys as well,” she said. “Because if they did, it would help improve things.”

What does an engineer look like?

Anisa Mohammed, a computer science student, CSSU social director and make-up artist, is called “pink computer girl” in one of her classes. “I don’t even have a name,” she said, “ …[Y]ou’re the girl with the pink computer, that’s what they’ll define you by.”

Taamannae Tabassum, a third year computer science student, agrees with Mohammed that, as women, they have to go an extra mile to be taken seriously by their peers, lest they be talked over. “ [When talking to guys] I have to be louder, I have to be more assertive, and I have to be like when I talk to you there’s no way you can say no to me,” said Mohammed.

Like Bell, Tabassum too has been told that the reason she has hired to fulfill gender quotas.

Others have told her, “‘[D]on’t worry, you’ll get in because you’re a girl… [W]ell why can’t I get it because I’m smart enough?” Tabassum asked.

Vatsal, a fourth-year male computer science student and teaching assistant, has witnessed some of the issues both his peers and students face. He notes that a women in a team of his students is often delegated the task of beautifying things, while men take on the coding.

Uri Goldberg, a first-year computer science student has also witnessed sexism on campus. He recalls an incident where, in a group project, a girl was only ‘allowed’ to do the docstrings, which is the text accompanying code, by an male project partner who had assumed control.

While there is still some way to go in improving gender equality in the field of engineering, some are working hard to accelerate this process. Samantha Stuart, for example, is a second year engineering student who recently won a national scholarship from the Canadian Engineering Memorial Foundation in recognition of her outreach efforts to high school students. Perhaps, if role models like Stuart continue to take initiative and gain recognition, a situation where women in computer science and engineering continue to be outstanding, but cease to be exceptional, is on the near horizon.