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Engineering for change in Ontario

Systemic bias in engineering industry focus of OSPE action plan


Women's annual earnings across 56 trades is about half of men. (Dubo/Adobe Stock)

Dismal statistics plague the engineering community — one in four women report facing harassment, 45 per cent of International Engineering Graduates (IEG) are underemployed in Ontario, and since 2000, there has only been a two per cent increase in the number of women who are retained in the engineering profession.

Observed individually, there is little commonality in these statistics, except that they are holding us back in many areas — they affect different demographics, ages and genders.

What unifies them is that they are the result of long-standing bias in engineering culture; some of which may be unconscious.

The engineering community’s culture of exclusion threatens to hold Ontario back from embracing the competitive advantage that diversity brings.

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In 2020, systemic discrimination and bias came under serious mainstream consideration.

Spearheaded by the Black Lives Matter movement, it meant looking at the traditional practices and unchecked beliefs that are so commonplace they are practically invisible.

Focus on systemic bias

While the discussion regarding diversity and inclusion in the engineering profession has been ongoing in some circles for decades, the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers (OSPE) was happy to see 2020’s renewed focus on systemic bias.

This year, we were pleased to note that both organizations and individuals began connecting the dots. We know that 45 per cent of IEG’s are not underemployed because they are unqualified — as may be commonly assumed — but because, as the Ontario Fairness Commissioner (OFC) noted, they face an uphill battle during the licensure process.

As noted in their independent review, “the current requirement that applicants possess at least one year of Canadian experience is not aligned with requirements across Canada and is deemed unreasonable.”

Holding IEG’s to a different standard is an unchecked bias that has gone on in the engineering industry for decades. This is only one of the findings of the OFC’s 2018 report and unfortunately, there has been little movement on that front — systemic bias continues to hold the engineering community behind, often beginning at the early stages of an engineer’s career.

“Engineering cannot be defined by the haves and have-nots. If you allow a discriminatory culture to fester, you hold the entire community back by missing out on valuable talent. It’s time for a gut-check from the community,” says OSPE CEO Sandro Perruzza.

Widespread discrimination, on the level of gender, race and sexuality continue to affect the engineering community.

“Diverse perspectives should not scare anyone. They are the bedrock from which innovative thinking springs.” These comments are backed up by decades of research that suggests embracing a wide variety of viewpoints and expertise leads to better solutions.

Engineering for change

Engineering companies, leaders and employees have reached out to OSPE to articulate their frustration with the state of things.

Through our consultations, we know that the desire for change is palatable in many sectors of the engineering community, yet many report not knowing where to start, or not having the tools to begin.

At OSPE, we see this challenge as our responsibility. Engineering is at an important threshold, and alongside the numerous voices asking for change in the community, we ask the entire engineering community to come together with us and rise to the test.

In consultation with our task forces, member base and community of engineers, we have come up with a four-point plan designed to begin addressing the problem:

  1. Taking concrete actions and reaffirming that diversity and inclusion remain part of our core values.
  2. Offering regular diversity and inclusion training to any members of the engineering community who seek it.
  3. Launching a new featured Diversity and Inclusion Champion Award in 2021 to honour OSPE members who are making real systemic change.
  4. Committing to convene a summit with all Ontario engineering leaders in 2021 to develop an industry-wide action plan.

The time for talking must stop. Action needs to be taken.

Our four-point plan aims to provide pro-active and actionable steps towards creating our own future, one that embraces equity, diversity, and inclusion.

Join us, and demand action at www.engineeringforchange.ca.

If you are an engineer or engineering graduate, become a member at www.ospe.on.ca. Together, we can make real change.

Réjeanne Aimey, P.Eng., is president of the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers (OSPE).