D’Amato: Trudeau should have acknowledged women when he praised University of Waterloo  Banner Image

D’Amato: Trudeau should have acknowledged women when he praised University of Waterloo

Article from The Record
By Luisa D'Amato

Posted: January 26, 2016

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau forgot something important when he was praising University of Waterloo at the World Economic Forum last week.


Trudeau was giving his keynote speech in Davos, Switzerland when he singled out our university for being a source of "brilliant minds and brilliant ideas," and a place to which Silicon Valley looks.

"But diversity is its indispensable ingredient," Trudeau said of University of Waterloo.

"Their students come from everywhere. Fully half the graduate engineering students are international. And the University of Waterloo's domestic students are drawn from Canada's student population — one of the most diverse in the world," said Trudeau.

Except for one thing, Prime Minister.

Those classrooms in which computer science, engineering and math are taught have an embarrassingly short supply of women — among both the teachers and the students.

So please, let's not pat ourselves on the back so hard that we forget this important and difficult struggle.

To its credit, the university is making huge strides on this front.

In 1989, the year that 14 female engineering students were murdered in Montreal, there were only two female engineering professors in the entire engineering faculty at University of Waterloo.

By 2012, thanks to the sustained efforts of people on campus who saw empowerment of women as the best response to this deranged act of violence, the number of female engineering professors had risen to 45. The faculty also chose its first female dean of engineering, Pearl Sullivan. And the number of female engineering students had tripled, to 1,135.

Under its progressive president, Feridun Hamdullahpur, University of Waterloo is making even stronger efforts to boost the female component.

He is one of just a handful of university presidents in Canada to appoint a special adviser on women's and gender issues.

And the University of Waterloo is the only Canadian university to have signed on to a special United Nations-backed effort to boost female student participation in science, technology, engineering and math courses, and to attract females to faculty and senior administrative positions on campus.

The program is named "HeforShe" and focuses on engaging men and boys in removing social and cultural barriers to female participation.

"Gender equity is not a women's issue," Hamdullahpur said nearly eight months ago when the program was begun. "It is an everybody issue."

Progress is slowly being made through different mentoring and outreach programs, such as Physics Day hosted by the university for girls in Grade 7 and 8, or the coding camp the university sponsors for girls in Grades 4 to 6.

The results are tangible. The proportion of female faculty at University of Waterloo has historically been around 25 per cent, thanks to the university's traditional reliance on male-dominated fields like engineering and computer science. Today, there are close to 30 per cent female faculty, said Diana Parry, who is Hamdullahpur's adviser on women's and gender issues.

And also, last fall's entering class of computer science students was 25 per cent female, a significant increase from the usual 15 per cent.

The under-representation of women in these important fields is a huge problem that should have been acknowledged by Trudeau.

The good work that's being done in Waterloo to fix that problem is equally worthy of mention.