Student perspective: OSPE member Vanessa Raponi discusses diversity in engineering

The following opinion piece was contributed by Vanessa Raponi, an undergraduate student of Materials Engineering and Management at McMaster University.

Vanessa RaponiVanessa has dedicated her undergraduate career to thoroughly exploring and understanding the engineering profession. She’s completed 28 months of undergraduate co-op, but her favourite and most impactful experience thus far has been creating EngiQueers Canada, a national LGBTQ+ engineering student organization. Although EngiQueers initially started at McMaster, Vanessa’s fight for true diversity and inclusion within the profession has taken on a national focus, with schools all over the country getting on board.

Vanessa discusses four hot-button topics about diversity in engineering:

Personal Experience and Diversity

I’m a woman who is queer, mixed race and who grew up on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale. I’m also a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, whose family has been closely impacted by homelessness and addiction, and a person who suffers from severe anxiety. And yet, in my day to day life, I’m expected to excel alongside my colleagues, meet deadlines, participate in meetings, be a leader, be professional – become the best engineer I can be.

For me, I navigate life with the expectation of always going above and beyond, as mediocrity is not a word I want associated with my work. To try and do that with the weight of my life experiences is unequivocally different than for those who have not experienced what I have gone through. And this is fundamentally why acknowledging diversity is critical. The key to unlocking the higher potential of our profession lies in supporting and advocating for those who have experienced unique challenges.

“Women in Engineering”- Not such a Simple Issue

My conflict with the traditional “Women in Engineering” focus is that it is no longer enough. Yes, the number of women in engineering is 100% still an issue, but to say statements such as “we need to start with women before we delve into anything else,” sends out an exclusionary message to other forms of diversity. Of course, women deserve to be treated equally and to be part of every step of the ladder, but have we had the same level of acknowledgement for our female queer colleagues? Our female refugee colleagues? Our female colleagues who need to take a mental health day from time to time? When you focus the conversation on women only, you’re excluding a lot of other groups who need attention.

When we still have workplaces that are unequipped to handle a heterogenous group of people adequately, it sends out the message that “our profession is unwilling to change.” It’s also been understood that the gender binary of “man” and “woman” isn’t that black-and-white, so by enforcing this, we’re sending out the wrong message. Keeping up with the times is critical to the future success of the profession. We must acknowledge that diversity includes more than women in engineering. The profession focuses on innovation from a technical lens, so why not tap into the same innovation for our diversity and inclusion practices?

Setbacks, Improvements and Goals

I think the biggest set-back right now is a lack of education. Many of our diversity issues stem from simple ignorance on these topics. Although university spaces nationwide are starting to embrace inclusivity, we still need those who hold positions of influence, those in management and leadership roles within the workplace to start actually learning, understanding and living this inclusive state-of-mind. That could look like more training sessions, more events and more consultations with experts. The sky really is the limit.

And it’s not just about talking the talk. It’s also about putting your money where your mouth is. I so often read about a company’s “commitment to diversity,” but after some investigation I often find that there is little to back that up. You need to have a bias towards real action when it comes to this topic. It is not only critical for every company to embrace, but also to invest in the world we live in today.

The Responsibility of Organizations like OSPE

I hope and expect an advocacy organization like OSPE to be on the frontlines and leading a movement like this. Running campaigns, putting positive pressure on companies, highlighting success and recognizing the innovators of this movement are great steps. Our profession will only benefit from a greater focus on diversity in a broad sense. This is especially true in Canada, as diversity is one of our most prevalent and unique realities. Every single Canadian has such a different story – and they should all be embraced with open arms by our profession.  That is my hope.  One that I believe can someday become a reality.

We invite you to share your opinions too! How can industry, academia and all members of the engineering community foster greater diversity across the profession? What strategies and tactics do you find effective?


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