By Leslie Emmons

When Helen Wojcinski, P.Eng., began her career in 1989, only 2%  of women in Ontario were professional engineers. Now, it’s about 12%, however, gender inequality in the boardroom persists. On November 28, the Lassoed School of Engineering at York University tackled this topic by hosting a fall forum titled Getting a seat and having a voice: The importance of women engineers at the boardroom table.  Presented by the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers (OSPE), the all-day event featured panel discussions by industry experts.

According to Wojcinski, who is on the board of directors for the OSPE, the idea for the forum was sparked by a discussion with the former minister of the status of women, Kellie Leitch. Wojcinski currently operates her own practice, Wojcinski & Associates Limited and says that although there is growth, it has been moving at a slower than desired speed. “We really have to up the ante and really get women into these roles,” she said.

One way to combat the shortage is an initiative enforced by the Ontario Securities Commission, which is called “comply or explain.” The initiative aims to increase the number of women in high-ranking positions by requiring companies to disclose their inclusion of women. OSPE has put comply or explain into practice and have reaped the rewards. “We seek out women to run for the OSPE board,” Wojcinski explained. “We’ve got 50-50 on our OSPE board right now, we have gender parity.”

Nancy Hill, P.Eng., also a board member for OSPE was a moderator during Saturday’s evening portion of the forum. “We were very pleased with the turnout and the discussion,” she said. “When you go to one of these things a good indicator of how people are enjoying it is A: the number of questions after the panelists speak and B: the hum in the room when there’s a networking opportunity.”

“We had a couple speakers talking about what recruiters are really looking for and we had another speaker touch on how to build your toolkit, which was very useful,” she said. “I think people had a lot of takeaways, reflecting on different paths that you can take into the boardroom. A number of colleagues spoke of their personal stories which gave people some more food for thought, in terms of how they started, where they made their first connections and how that grew into different opportunities.”

For Hill, under-representation in the boardroom is historical. She explained that in the past boardrooms were old boys networks and many of them had no policies concerning diversity or gender equality. “I think typically [men] are most comfortable with working with people just like them… without recognizing the need for or the benefit of diversity. It’s kind of human nature, unless you’re specifically challenged to think about it and whether that challenge comes from government policies, or regulators policies, or through inspired leadership.”

The day was filled with various speakers dolling out interesting stats on the industry, an important one came from Clare Beckton, founding executive director, Carleton University Centre for Women in Politics & Public Leadership. Beckton spoke about a study conducted by Credit Suisse, a bank, on corporate gender diversity. The 2014 study found that more women in senior management positions improve companies’ financial performance and investor returns.

Despite the benefits, inclusion of women is still growing slowly. According to the math by one of the speakers— John Koopman, Partner at Spencer Stuart—at the current rate, it’s going to take about 10 years until there is gender parity on boards. “While we’re definitely making some gain it’s the rate of change that also needs to be looked at. It’s still taking us too long,” Wojcinski said

Leslie Emmons is a writer for ES&E Magazine.

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