Engineering offers an equal opportunity work environment

Engineer Johane Lavigne spoke to the Bristol Girl Guides Monday 29 April. The talk, animated by an 8 minute video, illustrated how the profession of engineering applies to every aspect of modern life.

But Ms Lavigne’s particular motivational message to the 15 Girl Guides was that women make great engineers.

She started out by asking the girls whether they personally know any engineers. Three did: one, Elizabeth said her brother is a computer engineer. Another added that her dad is an industrial engineer. (Ooohs and aaahs of appreciation and admiration were expressed when she elaborated: he works at the Hershey chocolate factory in Smiths Falls.)

The girls were asked what skills and personal characteristics make a good engineer. Christa piped up with “any kind of person.” Together with the speaker, the Guides came to understand that that logic, analytical thinking, patience, curiosity, aptitude in math and science, cooperation, good communication skills… and a sense of humour.

Why a sense of humour?

Ms Lavigne’s noted, “When I first went onto the job site at the Champlain Bridge, I got a lot of comments. I’m a woman, and even though there are many more women in engineering these days, we still get comments. You need a sense of humour to manage the jokes. If you handle it okay, the guys accept you and realize you’re competent.”

Her words are echoed by Danielle Zaïkoff. “Imagine, when I started my career in 1972, they refused me access to the James Bay jobsite because I was a woman!”

She now laughs at this situation. A brochure published by the Ordre des ingénieurs du Québec highlights Québec women in the engineering field. It describes Zaïkoff: “She needed to have a good sense of humour to overlook the prejudices that were common at the time, but attitudes really have changed.

“First woman appointed a director at Hydro-Québec, Danielle Zaïkoff was also the first woman to be elected president of the Ordre des ingénieurs du Québec and the Canadian Council of Professional Engineers. She is profoundly convinced that women are better suited than ever for engineering.”

Engineers are everywhere around us and women are star members of the profession. Take Julie Payette for example.

“I didn’t touch a computer until I was 19. I am living proof for girls that a career in science is one of their choices.”

She literally aimed her career at the stars: she became an astronaut with the Canadian Space Agency and also worked at NASA.

Ms Lavigne’s talk highlighted the many careers open to engineers, by first enumerating the major engineering fields. The video supported her, by showing career opportunities in electrical, mechanical, industrial, computer, aeronautical, aerospace, biomedical, environmental, food and agricultural engineering.

But she also noted that just because you’re an engineer, it doesn’t mean that you cannot have an active interest in complimentary fields such as international affairs, sociology and psychology.

Did the girls realize, she asked, that many engineers travel abroad? Did they realize that many engineers also work with underdeveloped countries, to assist their peoples to get basic infrastructure, like potable water, for instance? Clean drinking water is something Canadians have learned is something that we cannot take for granted.

Lili-Anna Peresa is an engineer who says, “I have travelled a lot for my work. My activity in developing countries showed me the human side of engineering.”

The brochure notes, “At just 34, Lili-Anna Peresa can point to professional experience that is rich in both human and professional terms. She is one of those people who love to travel in foreign countries, where the cultures and conditions are equally exotic.

She is quoted as saying, “I taught chemistry and physics in Malawi, managed infrastructure projects in India and Romania, and restructured a bankrupt non-governmental organization in Burkina Faso.

“I was a manager for CARE in Bosnia, where I had to establish a women’s clinic. Sometimes, in spite of the curfew, I would travel at night by jeep through mined areas to help people.”

Today she is Executive Director of the Pétits Frères des pauvres. Here, as in all her professional activities, she uses engineering skills of logic, analysis, problem-solving and teamwork

Another woman, Angèle Saint-Yves, completed her Engineering degree when she was thirty-three. Today she is an engineer and researcher in agri-food, one of Canada’s largest industrial sectors. She is in charge of the Food Research and Development for Agriculture and Agri-food Canada.

Role models, all. It’s important for our Pontiac young women to realize that girls can aim their sights at any career they wish.

Marie Bernard, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the École Poytechnique and holder of the Marianne-Mareschal Chair on women in engineering, says “Girls often express the desire to help society. We forget to show them how much engineering can have a human aspect and serve society.”

Guest speaker Johane Lavigne gave the Guides much to think about. She noted that of the over 43,000 engineers in the province of Québec, almost 1,500 live in the Outaouais. And there are “ninety-one times more women in engineering than in 1967,” she told me after the talk. “9.1% of engineers in Québec are female.”

Sure, there’s room for many more women in this exciting profession. Perhaps some of our Pontiac young women will choose this career, who can tell? Certainly, the Guides are lucky: thanks to Ms Lavigne’s informative talk, these young women know more about this exciting profession.


Katharine Fletcher chose a career in writing, editing and publishing. She telecommutes with editors all over the world from her electronic cottage north of Quyon, Québec.