Women in Science and Engineering Advancement Workshop connects professionals

(EDMONTON) Earlier this week 45 women from Western Canada, most of them academic professionals in STEM careers, gathered in the Fred Pheasey Common at the Donadeo Centre for an all-day workshop designed to connect and inspire. One of the first speakers at the event was Lois Erichson, operations leader for NOVA Chemicals. “When I started, there were no other women working in my area,” she said. For the most part, her early experiences at the plant in the 1980s were positive. She went in to learn, never pretended she knew something she didn’t nor apologized for not knowing. “And I demonstrated a willingness to get down and do the work,” she said. It earned her the respect she needed to excel as a manager.

Erichson advised the women not to think they could do everything, and to outsource time-consuming tasks where they could. She told the crowd about her shortcut to spring yardwork: “I wrote a cheque!” Amid the laughter, a baby in the audience started crying, and was soothed by her nursing mom.

The academic organizers behind the Women in Science and Engineering Advancement Workshop were the U of A’s Ania Ulrich, a professor of environmental engineering, and Amy Kim, a professor of civil and environmental engineering.

In addition to lectures, the workshop featured breakout sessions for brainstorming and networking. Topics included achieving a successful academic career, maintaining a work-life balance and developing an equitable work environment. Possibly the cleverest of the networking exercises was a “speed mentoring” session in which senior facilitators spoke to junior participants about pretty much anything the participants wanted. At the end of 10 minutes, each participant moved on to a different mentor.

This is not the first conference of its kind, according to Ulrich. “I attended one last year at the University of Calgary,” she said. “I actually don’t know how many there have been, but this is the first at U of A.” While she would love to attend a conference like this every year, hers is a problem of numbers. At the University of Alberta, women constitute about 15 per cent of the nearly 300-person faculty in the Faculty of Science. In Engineering, it’s 11 per cent. “Someone has to step up, organize and host the entire event,” Ulrich said. “There are so few female faculty and we burn out with all the service we do.”  

Though logistically the event is a drain on a limited pool of potential hosts, it’s important. Within in the academic workplace, sometimes a woman faculty member in the STEM fields can find herself without female peers, so networking across campuses becomes especially important, a fact that is becoming recognized at other levels. Ulrich points to support for the workshop from the NSERC CWSE/CRSNG CFSG, the U of A’s faculties of Science and Engineering, and in-kind support from the Centre for Smart Transportation on campus.

And the support is showing in other ways. Dean of the Faculty of Engineering Fraser Forbes delivered some opening remarks at the workshop, and one very important message. As of July 1, there is a new associate dean of outreach: Ania Ulrich.

Ulrich and—likely—the rest of the women in the room are pleased that the faculty is walking the talk. “The faculty has stood up said that it wants to focus on people and in creating a culture that brings out the best in all of us,” she said. “My position is to help facilitate that.”