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Cory Vitt (they/them) knew they wanted to be an engineer when they were in high school. They got into the advanced program at the University of Manitoba and finished their Bachelor of Civil Engineering in five years. They were one of the youngest Indigenous people to graduate with an engineering degree in 2005. Vitt went on to do their master’s degree in Bangkok, Thailand for two years. During these years, they were figuring out their gender expression and exploring different gender identities.
When Vitt started their career as an engineer-in-training, they were struggling to gain recognition and receive projects. They felt revealing their gender identity and sexual orientation would only hurt their chances more.
Unfortunately, Vitt wasn’t wrong. When casually chatting with a colleague and mentor in the lunchroom, the mentor said they “could never work with a gay person because they all have AIDS.”
Vitt was taken aback and disgusted by the comment. They were hurt that someone they looked up to could say something so heinous and inaccurate. Vitt started to distance themselves from that colleague.
“That really is one of the centrepieces on why I was closeted — working with people like that,” said Vitt.
Vitt left that workplace in rural Manitoba and moved to Winnipeg, where they saw an opportunity to start over and gain confidence in their gender expression. Now as an acting senior approvals engineer, they identify as two-spirit, non-binary, queer, and more. Despite their establishment in the industry and comfort in their gender identity, colleagues still questioned, ignored, and laughed at their pronoun use.
The famously male-dominant engineering profession has a reputation for inequality. Only 20.2 per cent of newly licensed Canadian engineers identified as women in 2020. In 2019, 0.93 per cent of engineers were Indigenous. As for 2SLGBTQIA+ engineers, there’s barely any data at all.
There are initiatives in place to combat some of these inequalities. The 30 by 30 program aims to increase the representation of Canadian women in engineering to 30 per cent by the year 2030.
This 2017 study found that 2SLGBTQIA+ engineering students face greater marginalization, devaluation, health, and wellness issues than their peers. Additionally, this 2021 study shows that 2SLGBTQIA+ science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) professionals were more likely to experience career limitations, harassment, and professional devaluation than their non-2SLGBTQIA+ colleagues. The study also showed a higher percentage of 2SLGBTQIA+ people intending to leave the STEM field than their non-2SLGBTQIA+ colleagues.
Vitt’s story is not uncommon, nor are the stories of the queer engineers featured below. Their experiences, alongside other traditions in the industry, show how much work the engineering profession still needs to do if they want to be inclusive and welcoming to 2SLGBTQIA+ engineers.
Lisa Stepnuk (she/her) is an engineer-in-training who identifies as queer. She was originally interested in environmental science since she loved the outdoors, but she eventually decided to pursue biosystems engineering at university. Stepnuk worked in environmental consulting firms at the beginning of her career. Now, she works in the regulation side of engineering.
Early in her career, Stepnuk remained quiet about her sexuality to her colleagues. She was known for being reserved. Meanwhile, she spent her weekends going to queer parties and wearing her hair up to show off her shaved undercut.
She said it’s something she just never talked about in the hopes that she could blend in — and blending in meant being perceived as heteronormative.
“[Engineering] is just a very straight world,” she said.
Brittany Toews (she/her), a hydrotechnical engineer who identifies as a lesbian, also felt the need to remain silent to protect her identity.
Toews was inspired to pursue engineering after participating in a Skills Manitoba Competition in high school. Her physics teacher and facilitator for the competition said she would make a great engineer.
She liked the idea of turning math and physics into something more tangible — something that could help make people’s lives easier and better.
At a company-wide conference workshop about inclusivity for 2SLGBTQIA+ people, Toews felt hesitant to share her identity because of an attendee making insensitive comments. The older man was belittling the value of the workshop and saying it didn’t matter.
“It’s difficult enough to be a woman in engineering,” she said. “This just feels like another difficult thing to have to deal with, and it’d be nice if we didn’t have to.”
Toews says she has frequent encounters with colleagues where they have assumed she has a male partner. She finds herself debating whether it’s worth correcting them and saying she is dating a woman. Are they going to have a weird reaction? Is this going to change my working relationship with this person? These are questions that run through her mind. Because of the heteronormative assumptions her colleagues held, she feels frustrated that she has to explain more about her life than others do.
Engineers Canada, the entity that regulates engineering practices and licensing across the country, holds Canadian engineers to a high ethical standard. Its code of ethics outlines 10 ethics that ensure registrants uphold the values of truth, honesty, trustworthiness, safeguarding of human life, welfare, and the environment.
Because of the responsibility engineers uphold, getting a degree is only one hurdle to becoming a working engineer. After four to five years of schooling to earn a Bachelor of Science in Engineering, graduates must take an Acts, By-Laws, and Codes test to become an engineer-in-training (EIT), which has similar accreditation to an intern. Once they’re an EIT, they need at least four years of eligible work experience, 48 hours of professional development, and 48 hours of volunteer service. Then they must pass the National Professional Practice Exam and have three professional references to achieve professional engineer (P.Eng) status.
This responsibility to keep society safe means that before emerging engineers enter the workforce, most partake in the Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer, or the Iron Ring Ceremony.
The Iron Ring Ceremony is held for Canadian graduates when they complete their Bachelor of Science in Engineering. The private ceremony calls graduates to promise to live by a high standard of professional conduct.
The tradition was created after two tragic collapses of the Quebec Bridge — a bridge made of iron — which killed 88 people in the early 1900s. The first collapse occurred because calculations made early in the planning stages were never properly checked, and the weight of the bridge exceeded its carrying capacity. On August 29, 1907, the bridge collapsed, killing 75 of the 86 workers. The second collapse occurred on September 11, 1916 during the reconstruction of the bridge. While workers attempted to raise the centre span into position, it fell into the Saint Lawrence River because of poor design work and materials, killing 13 more people.
The intent of the ceremony is to remind engineers of the responsibility they have to do ethical work that safeguards human life. However, the oath is rooted in Christian scripture, sexism, and patriarchal symbolism.
The ceremony was designed in 1922 by Rudyard Kipling, a British author who wrote The Jungle Book and the poem “The White Man’s Burden.” Charles McGrath stated in a book review that Kipling has been commonly called a “colonialist, a jingoist, a racist, an anti-Semite, a misogynist, and a right-wing imperialist warmonger.”
The ceremony asks participants to recite a lengthy oath, referring to their work as their Calling and their integrity as their Honour, all while physically holding an iron chain. Once the ceremony is completed, graduates receive a ring — which was once made of iron. The ceremony is closed, and only participants, those who have already taken the oath and received their iron rings, and selected guests can be in attendance.
In June 2022, a group of engineers called Retool the Ring spoke out about the issues of the ceremony in a statement, saying it’s “steeped in outdated and harmful worldviews, including colonialism, racism and sexism.” The movement was backed by Engineers Canada.
The group that oversees the ceremonies, the Seven Wardens, responded in November 2022, saying they’ve made a committee to revise the ceremony. On February 6, 2023 they put out a call looking for new poems to include in the ceremony.
As they enter the workforce, the ceremony reminds emerging engineers of the damage they can do if they aren’t diligent and thorough. It tells engineers they have a responsibility — and a power — to keep the bridge up.
It’s tough to know why the profession has held on to the antiquated parts of the ceremony, despite displaying values that go against the code of ethics. Social theorists have long sought explanations for why patriarchy is so resistant to change. One theory developed by sociologist Max Weber stems from his work on power. He classifies three types of authority: charismatic, rational-legal, and traditional.
Patriarchy is a form of traditional authority.
Think about rational-legal authority as being based on merit — power is appointed to those who abide by society’s rules and laws. This is the basis of modern democracy, giving elected officials power by legitimizing their ability to follow a set of policies.
Weber’s theory also explains the interrelationship between the types of power. He says traditional authority is naturally resistant to rational-legal authority. This is because when you give way to rational-legal authority, people with traditional authority tend to lose their privilege, thus levelling the playing field.
Social theories, of course, begin with their own set of assumptions, but Weber’s theory is a useful lens that might help us understand why the industry’s patriarchal nature has been so resistant to change.
Diversity and inclusivity are becoming more common values in the workplace, but some industries adhere to these values more than others.
Karam (she/her), an engineer-in-training and actor who identifies as bisexual, wanted her full name and background to remain anonymous. Karam said the theatre community in Manitoba is much more welcoming of inclusivity than engineering.
“In theatre, I have never had to explain what they/them means, what partner means, why I have she/her in my signature,” Karam said.
She said she’s been part of productions that involve specifically non-binary storytelling, where the theatre would hire a non-binary director.
“They wouldn’t just hire anybody,” said Karam. “That’s really nice to see.”
She said her colleagues in engineering have questioned why she describes her significant other as her partner. While most people have asked from a place of curiosity, she can’t help feeling tired of having the same conversations over and over again.
“Some days are like, ‘today I have all the energy in the world to teach you or explain what pronouns mean,’” Karam said. “But sometimes [I’m] just like, ‘oh my god, can I just live?’”
She said the theatre industry isn’t perfect by any means, and it hasn’t always been welcoming of queer people. In a thesis paper outlining historic 2SLGBTQIA+ representation in theatre in the U.S., few advances were made until the Stonewall Uprising in 1969. The theatre industry is also male-dominant, with women comprising less than 35 per cent of artistic directors, directors, and playwrights in Canada. Karam said the difference between theatre and engineering is that people in the theatre industry have an awareness of the issue.
“In my experience with the engineering industry, sometimes that awareness isn’t even there yet,” said Karam.
Acting in live theatre is an art form that takes vulnerability and expression. Actors must adopt a new persona, opening their perspectives about life through their character’s eyes.
The nature of patriarchy is that men are the leaders of the pack — therefore they must remain strong and stoic. Hegemonic masculinity is a term coined by Raewyn Connell. The concept states that hegemonic masculinity “dictates that boys should be physically tough, emotionally stoic, self-sufficient, and heterosexually dominant,” according to The Psychology of Gender and Health: Conceptual and Applied Global Concerns by M. Pilar Sanchez-Lopez and Rosa Maria Liminana Gras. When there’s no room for vulnerability, it’s difficult to acknowledge alternative perspectives.
Engineers can benefit from widening their perspectives — they must go through a process of examining the needs of their clients, the environment, and society as a whole. Doing this helps them make decisions about their designs and their impact on people.
Stepnuk said that part of the problem is that in engineering, no one can be flamboyant — cisgender men can’t present femininely.
She reflects on a moment she had with someone from upper management in her organization about four years ago. He complimented a woman’s floral blazer at a media training event. Stepnuk responded by suggesting he gets one for himself.
“I wish, but I work with a bunch of engineers,” he responded.
Stepnuk said pamphlets that go out to high school students describe engineers as people who are good at math and science. But the industry also relies on communication, teamwork, and relationship building.
Vitt said something similar. Their education was heavy on developing technical skills and barely emphasized the importance of social skills. While technical skills are important, Vitt said soft skills are around 80 per cent of what they do in a day.
“Engineering includes people. It’s about people,” Vitt said. “People come in all shapes, sizes, forms, gender identities, sexual identities, and we have to be respectful and inclusive of people and have that in mind, not only in our designs but in our interactions.”
When people think, “who do I want as an engineer?” Stepnuk said many would say the stereotypical image of an engineer — someone who’s straight-laced, has a type-A personality, and pays attention to details.
Someone who won’t let the bridge fall down.
“That’s still very much associated with cisgender men who present as very gender-conforming,” she said.
“[Cisgender, heterosexual men] are offered credibility, whereas everybody else has to work that much harder to earn it,” Stepnuk said.
By using Weber’s work on power to understand different power dynamics, it’s not as difficult to picture why “everybody else has to work that much harder to earn it.” Cisgender men have traditionally held upper management positions. Nearly 90 per cent of senior engineers in upper management are men, according to one study done in the United States.
Equal representation of upper management in engineering means positions, jobs, and opportunities are more likely to be afforded based on rational-legal authority. It means traditional, patriarchal authority no longer gives the edge to cisgender men. If we agree with Weber, it shouldn’t be surprising that the male-dominated industry has been slow to diversify upper management when those at the top benefit directly from patriarchy.
Toews said that in her organization, every year she and her colleagues have tried to push for more diversity on the board of directors. Currently, they’re all men. And every year, upper management has used the excuse that there are no women ready to be in that position.
“To me, that attitude just doesn’t sit right,” she said.
Maybe organizations are making advances, but it’s not enough to make queer people feel supported. Toews’ organization had a workshop on 2SLGBTQIA+ inclusivity, but a heckler was there to say it didn’t matter. Karam said she’s never heard anyone say anything queerphobic in her workplace, and she won’t hide her sexuality in conversations. But after mentioning she’s queer, she typically feels a pause and awkwardness among her colleagues, as if something had changed.
It’s important that members of society recognize these patriarchal patterns. As Weber said, more freedom means less room for the people at the top to keep their privileges. While other industries move forward, some are stuck behind because no one wants to give up their power.
Karam described a tiny sticker on the main door of her workplace that says, “This is a safe space for 2SLGBTQIA+ people.” She said it’s so tiny that she barely noticed it. Karam calls it the perfect representation of what it feels like to be queer in the engineering industry: it’s a tiny thing no one sees or talks about.
Dismantling patriarchy ingrained in male-dominant industries takes more than an annual workshop or a sticker on the door to the office.
Patriarchal traditions work against marginalized communities, which adds to an already challenging engineering career. Engineers are vital and needed — modern-day society can’t function without them. In order to best serve their clients, the environment, and society, they need to widen their perspectives and embrace the perspectives of people of all identities.