Comment: Paving the way for future women in engineering

Front Line Medical TechnologiesAs we celebrate INWED, it’s important to acknowledge many of the challenges women in STEM careers have faced over the years and continue to face daily, says Dr. Asha Parekh, CEO of Front Line Medical Technologies.

We also must draw attention to the lack of representation in the industry since less than a third of professionals in the science and research fields are women.

How do we, as women in engineering, address this inequality and underrepresentation? How can we inspire the next generation of women to explore engineering careers and consider less traditional routes if that’s where they aspire to be?

As a biomedical engineer and CEO of Front Line Medical Technologies, I pursued my passion. I want to inspire young women to pursue their dreams in the engineering and science realm and raise awareness about some of the obstacles women in STEM may face and how I have managed them.

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For background, I began my engineering journey as an undergrad student at Western University, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in biochemical engineering. After completing my master’s degree in biomaterials, I obtained a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering specializing in biomaterials and medical devices. Medical device innovation is undoubtedly my passion, and the COBRA-OS device is the technology I decided to dedicate my life to (for the time being, anyway!). My co-founder Dr. Adam Power, a practicing vascular surgeon, and I developed the device and co-founded Front Line Medical Technologies to commercialise the technology. We hope to make a global impact by providing health care workers with the means to save more lives, which is truly fulfilling on many levels.

I consider myself somewhat lucky in this regard, but the road I’m on and have taken to get to where I am today didn’t come without any obstacles. In my journey to becoming a biomedical engineer and creating the COBRA-OS device, I have faced and continue to overcome some challenges as a woman in STEM. For example, I’ve experienced not being acknowledged in pivotal business meetings on several occasions. Often, I’m the only woman in those meetings, which can sometimes make it harder to be heard. I know this is, unfortunately, something many women face. I continue to overcome this by showing up, contributing appropriately, and demonstrating that my value is not based on my being a woman and my physical appearance. A lot of how I face these situations comes down to me and how I feel. I want more women to feel that they can show up as themselves. Be confident in who you are and what you have to contribute.

I have faced and continue to overcome some challenges as a woman in STEM

I strive to create awareness about the impact these issues have on women in science and engineering. To have a lasting effect, education about gender bias, in all areas, needs to begin in the early stages of childhood. Rather than unlearning ideas later in life, children can be taught unbiased behaviours in their formative years. For example, something as simple as the toys we give children can have lasting impacts. If we give boys activities that require technical skills like Legos or video games and give girls dolls and dress-up clothes, what kind of precedent are we setting for them? We may be inadvertently steering them in specific ways without even realizing it. How we react and reinforce certain behaviours at a young age can have a lasting effect.

It’s also essential, especially when it comes to STEM, to normalise men and women with similar interests, careers, and hobbies outside societal norms. So often, students and young adults feel as if they have to choose careers based on their gender, which should not be the case. The data is there: fewer women make up the engineering field than men. Representation is vital if we want those numbers to increase. Without female representation, young girls will grow up believing there isn’t a place for them in STEM. It’s crucial for them to feel inspired to work toward their goals in science and engineering careers. We owe the next generation a more inclusive industry in which to work.

COBRA-OS (Image: Front Line Medical Technologies)

I am optimistic about our future. There have been significant improvements with representation in the industry, but there is still room for growth. The number of women in engineering, and STEM in general, is improving at a gradual pace. According to the U.S. Census, women made up only eight per cent of STEM workers in 1970 and presently make up about 27 per cent.

Beyond encouraging women to pursue careers in STEM, universities are also beginning to open less traditional doors for students by using a more business-centered curriculum for young adults aiming to go the startup and entrepreneurial routes. Even a minor adjustment to the curriculum can make a difference. It shows students the different pathways available to them and allows them to consider leadership roles in STEM that may not have been as apparent previously.

Awareness is critical; the only way for change to happen is to continue to raise awareness and educate on issues of gender inequality. It’s also essential for people of power to lead by example and realise that their behaviours may carry biases unintentionally. Only once we acknowledge our biases can we make progress toward real change.

I am so grateful for my experiences and for where I am today. I feel incredibly blessed that I have been given every opportunity to pursue my dreams, and I sincerely hope that many, many more women get to experience that in their lives. In my opinion, we can all help to open the doors for them.

Happy International Women in Engineering Day!

Dr. Asha Parekh, CEO of Front Line Medical Technologies