Winter 2021

All The Support They Need

Programs for women pursuing their dream job

Colleges and universities across Canada are putting the idea of women working in all sectors of the economy into action through programming and resources that are removing obstacles and making dreams become a reality. This action can take the form of anything from participation incentives to funding for women in need. You are not going to encounter many schools that aren’t doing something to help their female students. We highlight four such efforts in this article with the full knowledge that this represents the tip of the iceberg. 

Algonquin College

No stranger to the data, Algonquin College knew that women were severely under-represented in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) so they decided to act. They established a program in 2018 called “We Saved You a Seat.” The college vowed to set aside 30% of seats in their science and technology diploma programs for female candidates who met the minimum admission requirements. Researchers see 30% as the tipping point that will allow emerging female students to feel comfortable in programs of study that have traditionally been dominated by men. 

Right out of the gate, the college was ready to deal with claims of reverse discrimination. However, Sarah Gauen, a diversity and inclusion specialist at Algonquin, noted that no eligible male student would lose their spot, adding, “…really, this is about making sure that everybody that comes to our school is getting a really good education.” The programs targeted by “We Saved You a Seat” include electrical engineering, mechanical engineering technology, electro-mechanical engineering, computer systems and powerline technician. “We Saved You a Seat” includes mentoring and financial support for participating students. According to Electrical Engineering Professor Kathryn Reilander, “We’re creating a dynamic, gender inclusive environment at Algonquin College. Everyone is involved‚—the president, deans, chairs, faculty, student support specialists, and academic advisors—they’re all on board.” By all accounts, the program is seeing enrolment rise as more and more women are choosing the stability and economic benefits that come with a career in the skilled trades. 

Conestoga College

For two decades, Conestoga College has been offering pre-apprenticeship programs in carpentry for women. Things took a turn for the better when the Ontario government (via the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services, Women’s Issues) decided to cover the cost of tuition for any eligible student who wanted to take part in the program. Now Conestoga can offer a free program for women who want to enroll in their Women in Skilled Trades (WIST) pre-apprenticeship program in carpentry. The course of study includes a paid work placement where students get on the job training with a qualified journey person. 

One might be inclined to ask: why would the government work with the college to make the program free of charge for participants? The simple answer: because women represent the great untapped labour market in an industry that desperately needs workers. Researchers suggest that upwards of 70,000 new Red Seal workers are needed to replace retiring industry veterans by the middle of this decade. Conestoga College is taking the lead in making sure that women who want those jobs are in a position to get them. They are so invested in this position that they even offer a program called Jill of all Trades to encourage high school students to see what a skilled trades life might be like. Conestoga is taking action to promote women’s participation in the skilled trades in an effort to change the look and feel of the industry.

NorQuest College

In 2010, NorQuest College in Edmonton decided it was time to make the advancement of women a priority. Beyond simply talking about the need to find ways to empower women to assume more of a leadership role in our society, innovators at the college decided to back up the talk with resources. Since 2010, the 1000 women endowment has raised $3.5 million from generous donors. Initially the money was used to help female students in need of emergency student funding. Bursaries worth up to $1,500 were established for eligible students. NorQuest student and bursary recipient, Kayla B. says of the support, “It came at a dire time in my life. I am a single mom and a student, which [have] to be the two hardest jobs to tackle at the same time.” 

After establishing a base of support dealing with the most fundamental needs of female students with their bursary program, the endowment set about building the 1000 Women Child Care Centre on campus. Natasha Korosi, who was able to enroll her son Eli at the centre, says having access to proper care for her child while she studied changed her life. “This is giving me hope for the future—not just for my future, but his too,” she said. 

Currently, 1000 Women is hoping to help female students pursuing a career in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). They hope to raise more than $3 million to provide 150 women with the opportunity to take part in STEM programs and succeed in the field. If women are given equitable access to STEM education, and pursue a career in the field, the pay gap situation will improve, a more diverse workforce will emerge, and the economic prospects of women will change for the good. NorQuest College’s 1000 Women endowment is sending a clear message: take away the barriers to student success with resources and support, and watch women thrive. 

University of Alberta

Just down the road (and across the North Saskatchewan River) from their friends at NorQuest College, the University of Alberta is also encouraging young women to pursue a career in STEM, only they are targeting high school age students with their FEM+ Engineering Mentorship Program. Why engineering? Mainly because women make up just 14% of workers in the field. FEM+ is doing its part in reaching the 30 by 30 goal set by Engineers Canada—a workforce made up of 30% women by 2030. FEM+ is a seven-month mentorship program that pairs high school students with current students at the university. They call this ‘near-peer’ mentoring. Dr. Ania Ulrich, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and the faculty’s first female department chair, explains, “What’s been key about this program is it uses the model of near-peer mentorship. As opposed to somebody middle-aged, like me, going into the classroom, we get undergraduate female engineering students who are currently in the program to pair up one-to-one with these students.” High school students apply to the program and once accepted, take part in information sessions and social events that will help them determine if engineering is the right fit for them. In other words, FEM+ is for students looking to explore their career options—it’s not just for engineering students.

Saskatchewan Polytechnic

They’ve been on a 30-year crusade to encourage women to join the skilled trades. Saskatchewan Polytechnic has been a leader in promoting and supporting women who choose to pursue a career in anything from engineering to plumbing to carpentry. “Trades are seen as a man’s profession, so it’s challenging for women to identify being in a trades career, especially when they don’t see many role models,” says Jessica Baldwin, the Women in Trades and Technology (WITT) facilitator for the school. WITT, the women-centred career support program at Saskatchewan Polytechnic, does everything in its power to enroll and maintain female participation in their programming. These supports include awards and scholarships, tutors, mentorship, networking, and career development programs. Where possible, WITT workshops are delivered by women to students taking part in the program. One student, Jessica B., says the welding workshop she took part in helped set her on her career path. She said, “The WITT program helped me discover potential careers that I wouldn’t have realized before taking part in one of their workshops.” Saskatchewan Polytechnic continues to be a powerful advocate for women in the skilled trades. 

University of Waterloo

The University of Waterloo is aggressively promoting the advancement of women at their institution. They have several groups that advocate for women on campus. These include: 

Waterloo Women Leading Academia – a student-run group that promotes and encourages young women to not only pursue a career in academia, but to also become leaders in their field. The program provides mentorship for both graduate and undergraduate students. 

Women in Engineering – a group that’s been around since 1992, Women in Engineering (WiE) supports current engineering students and alumni in their pursuit of success in their field. Studies have shown that, while enrolment in STEM programs is often good, transferring that training into a career often lags for women. Groups like WiE provide as much support as possible for students in the engineering program. They also provide outreach programs for high school and elementary students. 

Women in Computer Science – Since only 20% of computer scientists are women (and they make only 94 cents for every dollar a man makes in the industry), Waterloo’s Women in Computer Science (WiCS) act as a major advocacy group for empowering women on campus. They not only promote their courses, but they also fight for an inclusive and safe learning environment and connect students with people
working in the computer science industry. 

Women in Mathematics – Waterloo’s Women in Mathematics (WiM) organization is not shy about bringing up one important point: women are under-represented in math, from enrolment to faculty positions. Their goal, like the other Waterloo groups, is to advocate for women, promote mathematics as a viable academic option, and alter the gender gap so that female participation in mathematics becomes a reflection of the diversity of the Canadian population.

The University of Waterloo is leading by example. If there is a department in the school that is seeking to improve female representation, the feeling of safety and comfort for young women, and to promote mentorship to help students to succeed, the university will back them up with resources and administrative support.  

Tap into the resources

High school counsellors are encouraged to work with their students to tap into the resources available for women looking to pursue careers in once male-dominated professions. The Canadian economy needs this type of exploration because women (and other diverse groups) represent the portion of the population that will address the coming labour shortage in some industry sectors. Female participation in all aspects of the economy will also help shatter stereotypes and, eventually, defeat the still prevalent gender pay equity gap. 

By: Sean Dolan