Where do we stand when it comes to female role models and stereotypes in 2019?

By Mélanie Kahle | December 5, 2019

Thirty years after the École Polytechnique Tragedy, the memory of this event has me thinking about the role of women in the field of engineering. Two main points come to mind: the number of women choosing to pursue a career in this field and the number of women in engineering that are able to find success, persevere, excel, and climb the corporate ladder to ‘break the glass ceiling.’


In my opinion, the factors that could motivate girls and women to choose a career in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) include developing an interest in those subjects early on, believing in their abilities, and being exposed to well known and accomplished female role models.

There are still stereotypes in many areas of our society: Would I risk giving my nephew a jewelry making kit and a construction set to my niece? Whether or not it is deliberate, marketing reinforces the link between certain areas of interest or activities and the gender traditionally associated with these activities. If parents are usually less likely to involve their daughters in manual or repair work, can girls develop the same level of confidence as boys when it comes to tackling these technical jobs?

In schools, things are generally equal; students have access to the same activities and assignments, regardless of gender. Young girls are very interested in science; since the early 2000s, there are more girls than boys in the natural science programs at the CEGEP or College level.[1] However, girls make up less than 30 percent of all engineering students, choosing instead other areas of science such as the health sciences.[2]

I am convinced that the small number of female role models in engineering in a young woman’s network has a significant impact on that woman’s decision to consider engineering as a profession. Not only are there relatively few women likely to influence young women to join their ranks, but female "superstars" in the field of science are rare. After all, apart from the curie (named after Pierre and Marie Curie), what other unit, constant, or equation is named after a woman?


When talking with my eldest daughter, who is beginning her studies in engineering, she says that female students do not see any particular obstacles for women in engineering. The same was true when I started my studies in 1992. The reality, however, is that among the women who choose engineering, few reach their company’s highest ranks. The probability that a woman will climb this ladder and attain a management position depends on the number of candidates, the opportunities for growth offered to her, and her goals or desire to expand her circle of influence and responsibilities. Companies must offer career development programs that take into consideration unconscious biases and allow women to showcase their talents and reach their goals.

As for ambition, it comes from the character of each individual, their perception of the advantages and disadvantages of a role within the company, and their confidence in being able to fulfill this role based on their professional skills and their personal obligations or aspirations.


Whether the subject is pregnancy, parental leave, or the burden of family obligations, today still women typically are faced with more social responsibilities compared to men , something which greatly impacts their career path. In addition to having to balance work and home responsibilities at a greater rate then men, the ‘motherhood penalty’ is a reality that many women face in the workplace. Research shows that women experience a 4 percent drop in their earning power for each child she has, versus men who actually encounter an average 6 percent increase when becoming a father.[3]

In my case, in addition to sharing family duties with my spouse, the possibility of working part time when my children were young along with flexible hours greatly helped me balance family and work. These measures could therefore have a positive influence on a woman’s career choice.


Today, the field of engineering is still dominated by men, particularly in management. Many companies, such as Hatch, where I have been working for the past 23 years, invest in the development, mentoring, and sponsoring of women in their career in order to break with the non-inclusive history of heavy or technical industries.

Is this enough, however, to convince women that there is room for them? I think it is essential that we support our female colleagues so that they can create an effective professional network. The members of a group of leaders within a company can help build strong relationships that go beyond the usual interactions associated with their respective roles. Up to what point can a woman feel part of such a ‘boy’s club?’ It is therefore also imperative that companies promote the inclusion of female leaders if they want to build these essential relationships.


I am convinced that the presence of women in engineering is key to the success of engineering companies because of the diversity of ideas women bring to the table and their contribution to the pool of available talent. This is true at all levels of a company, including management.

Although universities and the industry itself are focusing more and more on recruiting women, progress is slow, given that stereotypes still exist in our society. Changes must come about faster by setting lofty goals, such as the one set by Hatch: by 2023, women will make up 40 % of its staff. To attract more women to the field of engineering and ultimately, see them in top management, we must showcase female role models in the sciences, engineering, and management, in order to convince women that they can be successful, both professionally and personally, and that they can set themselves the highest goals.

[1] Service régional d’admission du Montréal Métropolitain (SRAM), "Annual report year 2016-2017 ", November 2017. Table 2. Szczepanik, Geneviève et al., "L’orientation des filles vers des métiers non traditionnels en sciences et en technologies", Revue Interventions Économiques (Papers in Political Economy)– 40 – 2009.

[2] Hango, Darcy (Statistics Canada), "Gender differences in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and computer science (STEM) at university", Dec. 2013. And, Consortium d’animation sur la persévérance et la réussite en enseignement supérieur (CAPRES), "Filles en sciences et génie | Résultats de recherche", February 2019.