Women in Engineering:
Dionne Barwise – Director of Measurement Engineering at MDS Aero Support Corporation
Dionne graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. She began her career at Nortel Networks in Ottawa as part of a team that was responsible for the world’s first facility capable of testing wireless equipment up to a certain frequency. The electromagnetic ambient-free chamber was the only one in Canada. She then became a Network Engineer, taking a position as a second level support engineer for high speed access products.
Dionne started at MDS in 2001 as a Test and Support Representative/Engineer and eventually worked her way up to Senior Project Manager at MDS, having been responsible for the entire scope and management of multi-million-dollar design-build projects for the company over the course of many years. Dionne is one of MDS’s first female directors of a technical department – Measurement Engineering. Measurement Engineering is a combination of Instrumentation, Applications, Controls, and Software Engineering, which are all distinct departments under her care and management.
Dionne’s passion for science and math was influenced by the occupations of her parents. Her mom was a math teacher and her dad a science teacher. “I was lucky to have a good background in the sciences,” says Dionne. It was this love for the subjects that ultimately lead her to the decision to pursue Engineering as a profession.
To her recollection, there has only been one challenging situation that arose because of her being female. A client wrote a letter to the Vice President requesting that a male project manager be assigned to their project. “It actually turned into a great experience,” says Dionne. “My company really supported me and they pushed back on the client.” Dionne’s manager remained firm in his belief that Dionne was the best person for the job and ended up telling the client that they stood behind their decision and believed she had the abilities to deliver a world class project. And that’s exactly what she did. “We created a really great working relationship together that we still foster today,” she says.
As a parent to two young children – one boy and one girl – Dionne firmly believes in letting them play with each other’s toys and not forcing the male/female roles early on. “I often find my little girl playing with her brother’s fire truck and vice versa, where he’ll be pushing the stroller around,” says Dionne of her two kids. “I think the best thing is to offer opportunities to both and see where their interests lie.”
The UK’s Institution for Engineering and Technology (IET) conducted research that found toys with a STEM focus were three times as likely to be targeted at boys rather than girls. The institute warns that this type of gender stereotyping may be contributing to discouraging young girls from pursuing careers in engineering and technology later in life.1
Inspiring girls to maintain an interest in math and science in school seems to be a challenge that school boards are eager to take on. In a statement about the research, Mamta Singhal, an IET spokesperson, said, “The marketing of toys for girls is a great place to start to change perceptions of the opportunities within engineering. The toy options for girls should go beyond dolls and dress up so we can cultivate their enthusiasm and inspire them to grow up to become engineers.”
Nurturing STEM interests at an early age and finding creative ways to translate that interest into a higher percentage of women entering the engineering profession is a tough challenge, especially with the societal stereotypes seemingly driving them away before they finish middle school.
There is a rise of gender-neutral toys on the market, but take a walk down the aisles of any major toy store and you will still see pink and purple frills dominating the girls section and trucks and soldiers dominating the boys section. One Canadian retailer, Canadian Tire, was recently commended for featuring a boy playing with a toy kitchen and a girl using a power drill set in one of their holiday toy catalogues in 2018. “The toy industry is changing slowly and over the years more gender-neutral toys such as science kits have started appearing. Toys can really influence what a child does in later years. Therefore, STEM toys are a natural move for the industry,” says Mamta Singhal, who also happens to be a toy engineer.