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Building EDI into an engineering culture

McGill’s Faculty of Engineering leads the way in advancing Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion

“I see engineering as a profession that’s really about service to community,” says Nia Fernandez, Manager of the E-IDEA initiative in McGill’s Faculty of Engineering. “The human part of the work we do is not always considered. What will our work do to people and the environment?”

For Fernandez, that’s why it’s essential to integrate the principles of EDI (Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion) into the engineer’s everyday work – from teaching and mentoring to research and lab work to grant writing and communications.

Fernandez began their McGill education with a BSc in Biochemistry and then a BEng in Chemical Engineering. While a graduate student in chemical engineering, they founded the Graduate Engineering Equity Committee (GEEC), which went on to be recognized by the Preston Phipps Equity and Diversity Award and the McGill Award for Equity and Community Building. Fernandez completed their Ph.D. in the field of regenerative medicine in 2022.

Now almost one year into the new position of Manager of E-IDEA (“Engineering Inclusivity, Diversity and Equity Advancement”), Fernandez oversees a slate of rapidly growing programs.

One such program – the Teamwork Initiative – partners with instructors to embed more EDI content directly into the curriculum. Rather than it being seen as something separate or supplementary, “EDI becomes part of the fabric of the engineering curriculum,” says Fernandez, who notes the program has received very positive feedback from both students and instructors.

“A lot of people really do care about EDI, but they need frameworks of support for it to make sense to them in a practical way,” says Fernandez. Along with a Faculty EDI strategy and an equity committee, E-IDEA includes an EDI advocacy program, a youth outreach program, EDI awards supporting student-led initiatives, and an Indigenous art exhibit spearheaded by the undergraduate Indigenous Inclusion Committee.

Fernandez also notes that inertia and passivity can be challenges, especially within a university setting. Much like Fernandez’s own work with GEEC, “students are always the first to speak up about what needs to change and create momentum at a grassroots level.”

“A fundamental best practice in academia”

For an institution to change its culture, it needs both grassroots initiatives and institutional champions, says Angela Campbell, McGill’s Associate Provost (Equity and Academic Policies).

In her role, Campbell has overseen EDI initiatives across the University since 2015. “The conversation is shifting, where it’s becoming increasingly accepted that this is actually a fundamental best practice in academia,” she says. “And the Faculty of Engineering has really stood out as a leader.”

Claudia Flynn (left) and Nia Fernandez
Members of the E-IDEA Teamwork Initiative team, Claudia Flynn (left) and Nia Fernandez
Engineering was the first at McGill to adopt mandatory equity training for all members of academic search committees. Led by Fabrice Labeau (at the time, the Faculty of Engineering’s Associate Dean, Faculty Affairs), a rigorous search process was put into place in 2015. Chairs were tasked with reaching out to 35 leaders from diverse networks to encourage potential applicants, and short lists were required to include a percentage of women and other underrepresented groups.

These efforts have been paying off. The number of women in tenure-stream faculty positions in the Faculty of Engineering almost doubled in six years — from 12 per cent in 2015 to 22.1 per cent in 2021. In the same six years, the percentage of racialized persons hired in tenure-stream faculty positions increased from 18.5 per cent to 25.2 per cent. As well, the proportion of female undergraduates enrolled in Engineering has risen steadily over the past decade — from 23 per cent in 2011-12 to 33 per cent in 2021-22.

And a recent article revealed that, of the 11 new faculty members hired since fall 2020, six are women.

“Engineering really got the ball rolling and became kind of an exemplar in this realm,” says Campbell. She credits the work of champions like Fabrice Labeau, while also commending the seminal contributions of “all the early changemakers at the grassroots level.”

“We’ve made EDI part of everybody’s job”

Jim Nicell is also quick to credit the work of many contributors in the Faculty and across the University, including faculty, staff — and, in particular, students. “They are the renewable energy and creativity that keeps pushing us to do the right thing.”

Nicell is now coming to the end of his second five-year term as Dean of the Faculty of Engineering. “The key thing we’ve done is we’ve made EDI part of everybody’s job.”

EDI has been built into the portfolios of each of the Faculty’s Associate Deans: student affairs, faculty affairs, academic programs, and research and innovation. That means reimagining everything, from how students are recruited, how classes are taught, and how lab research is structured, to training faculty members on implicit bias and creating a more inclusive style of teamwork.

Nicell points out the unique challenges of changing the demographics in a university: Faculty members are hired for the long term, for careers that can span more than three decades. This means that it takes a very long time to shift demographics of such a population. The recent doubling in the number of women faculty members “represents a massive recent change in the hiring process with important long-term implications. Equally important is the advancement of women through the ranks of professors and their growing assumption of leadership roles – all of which contribute to much-needed culture change.”

Reflecting on his tenure as Dean, Nicell says “my greatest pride is making sure we’ve done things that have lasting added value. And right at the top of that is E-IDEA.” Rather than delegating the task of promoting EDI to one staff member, the E-IDEA initiative is building momentum across all aspects of the Faculty.

“It’s creating a fertile ground where culture change can happen and then take off on its own power,” says Nicell. “And I think that’s where we are.”

The importance of role models

In 1990, Annmarie Adams was the first woman hired for a tenure-track position in the School of Architecture (currently Peter Guo-Hua Fu School of Architecture). She was subsequently the first woman tenured, the first full professor, and the first woman Director of the School.

Renee Pellissier (left) and Tina Shah
Members of the E-IDEA Teamwork Initiative team, Renee Pellissier (left) and Tina Shah
“There have been a lot of firsts,” says Adams, “simply because I was the only woman faculty member for 22 years [in the School of Architecture]!” She credits the decades of activism and scholarship on the part of women at McGill for bringing about change.

Adams notes research has shown that students will want to become what they see. “So, it’s very important to have visible role models.” She credits the late Jeanne Wolfe, who served as Director of McGill’s School of Urban Planning from 1988 to 1999, as an inspiring role model.

Women have been well-represented in Architecture’s student population for many years. (The latest stats show that 78 per cent of McGill’s Architecture graduates are women.) However, this hasn’t translated to women moving up in the profession, faculty positions, or leadership roles.

“One of my proudest accomplishments as Director is that I hired a second woman. Since then, we’ve welcomed two more,” says Adams, who was recently named a Fellow of the Society of Architectural Historians.

Adams also co-chaired the School’s Anti-Racism Working Group, which presented its report in February 2022. “I’ve taken the lessons I learned as a feminist – someone who cares deeply about the presence of women in universities – to work on anti-racism,” says Adams. “They are definitely linked.”

An E-IDEA whose time has come

“We’re at a point now where we’re beyond just trying to spread awareness,” says Nia Fernandez. “Those efforts have been happening for a long time.”

Fernandez sees their role as E-IDEA Manager as ensuring continuity and longevity – “making sure that EDI remains at the forefront of what the Faculty is doing and it’s not seen as a trend.” Currently, Fernandez is working on a new program to be unveiled this summer that will provide more in-depth training for instructors to apply EDI skills in all aspects of their work.

Fernandez notes the appetite among students is strong. “When given the opportunity to engage with EDI, students jump on it,” says Fernandez. A recent call for summer internships with E-IDEA immediately netted numerous responses from interested students. “So, there’s definitely a momentum we want to tap into.”

At the same time, Fernandez cautions about the tendency to rely on students to provide the impetus for change. “Students are already doing so much. We need to take responsibility for what’s ours now.”

This article was originally published in the McGill Reporter.

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