Engineering schools in Ontario are grappling with a drop in female students in an alarming reversal of the trend everywhere else in universities.
Women have fallen to just 20 per cent of first-year engineering classes in Ontario, down from almost 30 per cent five years ago - just as they reach nearly 60 per cent of all university undergraduates, more than 53 per cent of medical students and nearly half of law and business classes in North America.
Worried educators blame the drop partly on engineering's outdated image - "We're not all nerdy Dilberts!" insists one female prof - but also on a daunting new Grade 12 math course believed to be scaring off many students, especially less math-cocky females.
"The new math course is killing us, because even though girls do well in math, they often don't think they're any good, so they'll decide not to take it and then don't choose engineering," said biophysicist Gillian Wu, York University's dean of science and engineering.
In a bid to halt the growing gender gap, Ontario's 15 engineering schools held an emergency summit last winter and have launched a number of rare steps this fall:
They have changed entrance requirements this year to make them more female-friendly, by scrapping the dreaded Geometry and Discrete Math course as a compulsory requirement for engineering, and instead making it one of several options students may take, including biology, a subject girls often prefer, as well as earth science and data management.
They have banded together to host simultaneous hands-on workshops next Saturday at campuses across the province to pitch engineering to girls and their parents as a "people profession" that helps others as much as the health professions so popular with teenaged girls.
The five-hour event, called Go Eng Girl, will try to replace the notion of engineers as "grease monkeys who just tinker with machines," says mechanical engineer Lisa Anderson, Ryerson University's full-time co-ordinator of women in engineering, "with the more up-to-date image of engineers doing everything from designing hip replacements to finding ways to reduce pollution."
They have formed a new province-wide committee to ensure high school guidance counsellors realize engineers are not merely "math nerds with pocket-protectors who work in cubicles all day long," said engineer Marta Ecsedi, the University of Toronto's advisor on women in engineering.
"We know girls are drawn to professions they see as `caring' for others, so girls who are strong in math often veer towards health sciences," said Ecsedi, whose daughter is a mechanical engineer working on ways to relieve spinal cord pain.
"They need to understand that engineering is also a `caring profession' that works on ways to detect breast cancer earlier, or clean up contaminated soil or reduce malnutrition in the world through measures like fortifying salt."
Student Sweeny Chhabra, 19, a third-year engineering science student at the U of T, says she had been encouraged in high school to choose medicine because she was good at math.
"But I don't like the idea of working with bodies. I actually prefer to work hands-on with machines, and I'm thinking of going into biomedical engineering; maybe the field of X-rays or MRIs," she said. "Engineering is so broad."
The U of T's Ecsedi first noticed the drop in female engineers four years ago after Ontario launched its new four-year curriculum, which leaves teens less time for optional subjects than under the old five-year plan. The new Grade 12 Discrete Math course was a prerequisite for engineering, but fewer students were signing up for it because it was so intimidating, she said.
"And we know if girls have any doubts at all about their math skills, they need a nudge or they'll drop it," she said. "We're not sure they're getting that nudge.'"
While girls consistently perform every bit as well as boys on Ontario's Grade 9 math test, only 25 per cent of girls say they think they're good at math, compared to 37 per cent of boys.
Ontario is reviewing the course this fall as part of an overhaul of the new math curriculum, but in the meantime engineering faculties decided to make entrance requirements more flexible.
"We've raised the red flag about this because engineering needs to represent the full diversity of life experience - cultural and gender - to be truly creative," said Ecsedi.
Go Eng Girl activities are free (register at http://www.ospe.on.ca/goenggirl), but girls must come with a parent because it is often parents who have outdated views of engineering, say organizers.
There are even experts on "math phobia" who will speak to parents to try to dispel the myth that girls can't do math and suggest how they can encourage their daughters even if they aren't math whizzes themselves. And then there's the old raunchy image of engineers.
"Look, the old image of engineers staying up all night drinking and waking up nurses doesn't really appeal to many girls today - or many of their parents," said York University's dean Gillian Wu.
"But people don't really know much about engineering, the way they understand dentistry or teaching or business. They'll read about some fabulous new building designed by architect Daniel Libeskind - but they won't realize it's engineers who will actually build it," said Wu. "Maybe we need a prime-time TV show like `CSI' to popularize engineering."