A quarter of all Waterloo engineering frosh are now women

For the first time ever, women make up more than a quarter of the first-year engineering class at the University of Waterloo.
A view of the outside of the University of Waterloo's Engineering 5 building, which includes the Student Design Centre. The Centre is a space for engineering students to put their studies to practical use by building everything from robots to solar cars. (Andrea Bellemare/CBC)

For the first time ever, women make up more than a quarter of the first-year engineering class at the University of Waterloo.

More than 450 young women are enrolled this year, or 27 per cent of all 1600 first-year engineering students, who are taking classes in everything from mechatronics, to electrical engineering, to system design.

Mary Wells, the engineering department's associate dean of outreach, says the number is "a significant increase" over last year, when 21 per cent of the first year students were women.

"I graduated in the late 80s, and when I graduated we had about 14 per cent women," said Wells, who studied engineering at McGill University in Montreal.

Wells suggested the percentage of women enrolled in engineering programs had reached the low 20s by the early 2000s, but then fell again after the dot-com bubble burst. 

By 2008, a year after Wells started her role as associate dean in the engineering department at the University of Waterloo, only 16 per cent of first-year engineering students were women. 

"Over the past 7 to 8 years, we've seen a significant increase from about 16 per cent up to this year, this high of 27 per cent. If you look at the numbers the engineering programs at Waterloo and across Ontario have been expanding, so there's been an even larger increase if you think about the numbers," said Wells, in an interview with Craig Norris on The Morning Edition Friday.

Wells says that outreach programs that target young women have been helpful in increasing enrolment. 

Wells heads up Ontario Women in Engineering (ONWiE) a group that has designed outreach programs like Go Eng Girl, which takes place across the province every October and showcases engineering to girls in Grades 7 to 10.

Go Eng Girl is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, and over 7000 girls have taken part in the program. 

"We always run a survey at the end, and every time I read the responses I just realize how worthwhile the program is. For many of them, they say, 'I thought engineering was for boys, I've now realized it's for girls as well,'" said Wells.

She says girls were also surprised to find that engineering could be collaborative and people-oriented, and were interested to see the impact engineers can have on the world.

"When I graduated with the 14 percent, you might have been in a class of a hundred people where there were only four women. In that kind of a situation, when you're in the minority like that, you really may feel like, 'Is this the place for me? Can I really belong?'" said Wells. 'Whereas if you've got percentages of 20,25 per cent, you're in a situation where you don't feel like you're not in the minority as much."