Some of the diversity issues in engineering and geoscience are easy to see, such as the underrepresentation of women and Indigenous people. Others are invisible but just as important. EngiQueers Canada is a national organization dedicated to advocating for the interests of lesbian, gay, bi, transgender, queer and others (LGBTQ+) in the engineering profession.
ngiQueers Canada was founded in 2017 but it was not breaking new ground. Dozens of engineering LGBTQ+ campus clubs already existed across the country which allowed the organization to quickly grow to a membership of 30 chapters nationwide. The organization is focused on helping found new chapters in universities where such groups do not currently exist and fostering social connections among its member groups.
Emily Abelseth, a biomedical engineering student from Calgary studying at the University of Victoria, is the current EngiQueers Canada president. Although there are few hard numbers on the subject, Abelseth’s experience is that LGBTQ+ people are underrepresented in the profession. “The LGBTQ+ community is underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering and math fields in general because the environment isn’t comfortable. What we hear from members is there isn’t a great workplace environment.”
To illustrate this, she notes an example of an LGBTQ+ student on a co-op work term in the oil and gas sector. The crude, derogatory “locker room talk” of the oil sector workers made the student afraid to be open about gender issues among the student’s co-workers.
Armin Smajevic and Elliece Ramsey, executive members in Queers in Engineering, Science and Technology (QUEST), the University of Regina chapter, have had similar experiences.
“Have I had experience with unwelcoming workplaces? Yes! The day before this interview, at my co-op government research job, my co-workers started making homophobic jokes. My coworkers weren’t aware of my sexuality so they didn’t know they were hurting me but that shouldn’t matter,” Ramsey said. “It shows we still have a way to go. Usually, when you come out to your coworkers, their attitudes change. But if you’re not comfortable coming out at work yet, people often show that they still hold these biases.”
Smajevic is out with his friends but is often concerned that the open, easy-going relationship he has with them might cause collateral damage.
“These are guys who I’ve known for years. They know me and accept me. Sometimes they joke around and I know they don’t mean any harm by it. But I often wonder, if some other LGBTQ+ person was walking by and heard that, how would that make them feel hearing those jokes out of context?”
While one might think, in this day and age, that almost everyone would have progressive attitudes towards LGBTQ+ students, according to Smajevic and Ramsey this is not always the case. “Even in 2019 there are some people, students and faculty, that are not as accepting of LGBTQ+ students as we would hope. Therefore we sometimes have to be careful about expressing our sexuality,” Smajevic says.
Abelseth adds that LGBTQ+ engineers can face a bewildering intersection of different types of socio-economic and cultural biases.
“For example, I’m a bisexual woman, so I face biases where straight women, or bisexual men may not. But on the other hand, I’m white so I have some privileges that an LGBTQ+ engineer of colour would not have. Problems of bias and discrimination play out differently for different people based on the intersection of these diverse identities.”
Keeping Clubs Alive
According to Abelseth, the biggest challenge for the campus clubs that make up EngiQueers Canada is sustainability.
“These are student groups. The membership and the executive changes very rapidly. It can be very difficult for them to build up any sort of momentum. We try to support them with documentation, template constitutions, ideas about how to grow their membership and guidelines for carrying out events and initiatives,” Abelseth says.
This challenge is part of the daily struggle for QUEST, Smajevic says.
“QUEST was originally founded in 2017 but fizzled out within the year. I got involved in 2018 to help revive it but I’m graduating soon. Six out of our seven members are graduating. One of the initiatives we undertook to strengthen our membership was to open it up to other STEM students. Elliece, for example, is on the executive but she’s a biology student.”
Despite the struggles with momentum, QUEST has managed a few events over the past year. They hosted a keynote speaker, Cat Haines, a transgender woman who has worked in Silicon Valley. They also sponsored a bake sale to raise money for local LGBTQ+ causes.
“In the coming year, we want to focus more on the sustainability piece by establishing our bylaws and reaching out to professors and graduate students to invite them to join. We are also in discussions with Associate Dean David deMontigny about establishing a ‘positive space’ committee to promote healthier communication about gender issues,” Ramsey says.
What Can Employers Do?
What can companies and other engineering employers do to support LGBTQ+ employees? Smajevic and Ramsey have some pretty clear ideas about that.
“For starters, the ‘locker room talk’ has to be shut down right now. There’s just no excuse for it in the modern workplace,” Smajevic says.
“LGBTQ+ workers are an often-unseen minority so it’s easy for people to make assumptions. They assume that everyone in their workplace is cis and straight but that’s just not the case. So, you might think those comments are just a harmless joke but there’s a good chance that someone in your workplace finds them deeply offensive and hurtful. Even just by accepting those sorts of comments, you’re creating a hostile workplace environment,” Ramsey says.
While many employers make a show of support for LGBTQ+ causes during Pride month, Smajevic and Elliece emphasize that it is important to keep this going all year.
“It is very encouraging to see so many companies and Crown corporations showing support during Pride month. I think that sends a very strong signal to the LGBTQ+ employees working there that they are accepted. It’s important, though, that this support isn’t just expressed once a year but is part of a sustained policy in the company culture,” Ramsey says.
Above all, employers should keep in mind the value of diversity of all kinds in the workplace.
“As engineers, we’re designing solutions that affect many people, so we need to have a diverse range of views in our design teams. Lack of acceptance and lack of inclusivity affects the diversity of your teams which can reduce the quality of your work for the public. So, it’s important to foster inclusivity. Awareness campaigns, fundraising for LGBTQ+ organizations, hosting inclusivity and sensitivity sessions – those are all great ways that your business can help ensure an inclusive culture,” says Abelseth.BACK TO TOP