Sept. 3, 2020

Engineering prof aims to increase participation of women in STEM

Laleh Behjat named NSERC Chair for Women in Science and Engineering (Prairies)

Success, for Dr. Laleh Behjat, PhD, would mean working her way straight out of her new job. For the University of Calgary’s newly named NSERC Chair for Women in Science and Engineering (Prairies), making the prestigious position obsolete would be the pinnacle of achievement, as that would mean the goal of diversity and equity in STEM careers had finally been met.

“The ultimate accomplishment would be making it so this chair is not required anymore, when we have a system and culture that’s truly inclusive,” explains Behjat, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Schulich School of Engineering.

Program aims to encourage, celebrate and create opportunities

Launched in 1996, the NSERC Chair for Women in Science and Engineering (CWSE) program aims to increase the participation and retention of women in science and engineering, with five regional chairs across Canada nominated for five-year terms.

Each chair has three goals:

  • Encourage girls to consider careers in science and engineering professions, through outreach and public advocacy, with a particular focus on inspiring Indigenous girls from the prairie region.
  • Celebrate women role models in science and engineering professions, and ensure female students have access to these mentors.
  • Develop and implement a communication and networking strategy, to ensure a regional and national impact on opportunities for women in science and engineering.

Change equals opportunity

With great change taking place in society and in the workplace, Behjat says now is the perfect opportunity to ensure the future is one where all voices are heard and respected.

We are at a moment of upheaval — the climate crisis will change our environment, artificial intelligence will change how our work is set up, and biotechnology is going to change our bodies.

“All of this will take place over the next decade, so the question is not about bringing about change, it’s a question of what do we do with the change we now face,” explains Behjat.

Recent Statistics Canada data shows women make up 34 per cent of STEM bachelor’s degree holders and represent only 23 per cent of science and technology workers, and Behjat says the time is ripe to envision a new system.

“This is an opportunity to make the entire system more equitable and diverse, and more inclusive - not just for women but for all people.”

Plans include leadership program for women

Behjat’s plan as chair includes a leadership program that takes advantage of the digital revolution and other looming upheavals to re-envision the future STEM workplace, to one where all of society is represented.

Participants in Behjat’s program will turn ideas for an inclusive future into a viable and collaborative strategy, through leadership training, network building, and their own leadership equity action projects.

“The idea is not to have women fit into the current system, but to have women who can envision a better system and then build it,” she says.

“The goal is to systematically change the recruitment, retention, and advancement trends and realities of women in science and engineering, by enabling the women in these area to envision, strategize, build and scale up their works.”

Prestigious position returns to Calgary

The last time the prairies region chair was at UCalgary, it was held by future university president Dr. Elizabeth Cannon, PhD.

The return of the position to the Schulich School of Engineering is a tribute to Behjat’s efforts in making science and engineering inclusive to all, says Dr. Qiao Sun, PhD.

We are so proud to bring this chair back to our school, almost 20 years later, and there is no one more deserving than Dr. Behjat to act as a mentor and champion for women in science and engineering,” says Sun, senior associate dean of diversity and equity at Schulich School of Engineering.

“Laleh brings strength and vision to the chair, and her initiatives will increase the participation and influence of women in science and engineering.”

Five-year term for each chair

Along with Behjat, Ontario has another newly named chair, Dr. Shohini Ghose, a quantum physicist at Wilfrid Laurier University, while Quebec Chair Dr. Eve Langelier, a mechanical engineering researcher at the Université de Sherbrooke, is being renewed.

Each chairholder will receive $135,000 per year for five years, including $25,000 per year over five years to support a postdoctoral fellow.

"The stellar efforts of the CWSE Chairs to increase the number of women in fields where they are under-represented support NSERC’s commitment to fostering equity, diversity, and inclusion in the natural sciences and engineering," said Alejandro Adem, NSERC president, in a release.