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Dr. Karen Dow, PhD, P.Eng. is the Associate Dean for Undergraduate Program at the Price Faculty of Engineering.

Celebrating International Women in Engineering Day 2022

June 23, 2022 — 

International Women in Engineering Day was created to raise the profile of women in engineering and to celebrate the outstanding achievements of women in the field. It was also created to showcase the amazing and fulfilling career opportunities that are available for women in engineering so young women and girls can ‘see themselves’ in these roles and know that there is a place for them in the field. I can assure you, there absolutely is!

I am writing this reflection in my hotel room in Montreal as I attend an International conference that I co-organized as the Program Chair. As I stood on stage this morning, I was struck by how many of us sitting there were trained by my PhD advisor and mentor, Dr. Faye Hicks, a leader and a pioneer in the field of River Ice Engineering. Although now retired, I am grateful to her and to all the women like her that showed me that this career was possible and who helped break down some of the barriers in the field. I realize that when she was on a similar stage in her career, she would have seen a very different demographic and, as a result, would likely have had quite different reflections than I do today. In fact, a keynote presenter shared a photograph of the audience from the very first International Ice Symposium 50 years ago that he had attended and exclaimed that it looks identical to today, but all I could see was the sea of men in the photograph with not a single woman visible and thought to myself no, it most certainly does not look the same!

Observing the room, I also saw my group of students and was reminded of a research group meeting a couple of weeks ago that by chance only myself and all our female students could attend. We were all positively giddy as we marveled at how incredibly rare it is that any of us find ourselves in a technical meeting with only female engineers. We all felt a great deal of pride and connection in that moment, but it was also a stark reminder at how few of us there are in the field and that we still have progress to make. As much as the picture of the audience has changed, it is still relatively normal for me to find myself in meetings where I am the only woman in the room, so much so that I often find myself counting the participants in every meeting mentally calculating what percentage I am in that meeting and wonder how real I can be about what I think or whether I can be who I really am.

A group of researchers standing and posing for the camera in front of a large window with tall buildings in the background.

Dr. Karen Dow has been researching river ice since her undergraduate studies. She along with a number of UM colleagues attended the 26th International Association for Hydro-Environment Engineering and Research International Symposium on Ice in Montreal, QC from June 19-23. (L-R Shawn Clark, Elijah Edie, Kevin Lees, Madison Stafford, Mina Rouzegar, Randula Senarathbandara, Karen Dow and Jarrod Malenchak. Photo credit: Maryam Kamali )

I always have mixed feelings on International Women in Engineering Day, as I do on similar days like this. I am inspired by the women leaders before me, around me and by our students. I am proud of where I am at in my career, grateful for the opportunity to be a leader in the field to be able to support the success and education of others. I am impressed with the tough conversations we are having as an engineering community, the engagement I am seeing, and the desire for change. But the fact that we even need a day like this is always somewhat troubling to me. As much as it is a celebration of outstanding women in engineering, we need to remember that it exists because the recruitment and retention of women in the field remains a challenge. We often speak of the women we highlight on these days as being ‘heroes’ or ‘brave’, ‘trailblazers’ having ‘fought’ in this male dominated world. It is not just about increasing the percentage of women in the field, we must also ensure that we are creating environments in which women can thrive in our profession. Where they feel supported, have a voice, a sense of belonging, take on meaningful work, and are valued and respected for the work that they do.

I feel a great deal of responsibility to be a strong role model for women and girls as a mentor and a leader, to use my position to empower my colleagues and students, to influence change and use my platform to shine a light on our reality. I hope that the audience that our students see when they are on that stage is even more diverse and inclusive than the one I see today and engineering is a community in which they can thrive for who they are. I also hope that more men join this conversation and stand behind their women colleagues as allies as this work cannot rest solely on the shoulders of the women in the field if we truly want it to change.

Learn more about International Women in Engineering Day and join the conversation by using the hashtag #INWED22 and #ImagineTheFuture.

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