Mary Wells

Professor Mary Wells, Waterloo Engineering’s associate dean of outreach, has launched a book she co-authored with Anne Millar called Women of Impact. The book profiles the professional and personal lives of 18 female engineers and scientists who work in mining, metallurgy and materials in Canada.

Wells, who is also the chair of the Ontario Network of Women in Engineering, is heading up the Women of Impact Symposium in Toronto on August 26.  We caught up with Wells, the new president of the Metallurgy and Materials Society (MetSoc) of the Canadian Institute of Mining, Metallurgy and Petroleum, to talk about her latest contribution to the global conversation on women in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics.)

Waterloo: Why did you decide to co-write Women of Impact?

Wells: I see very few women speak at technical conferences, yet there are many women that I have met throughout my career who I’ve admired. Women are still underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields, particularly engineering, so I knew it would inspirational to hear their stories and see the diversity of women who have a technical background and have very successful careers.  We asked them about the obstacles they faced, how they overcame them and how they persisted.  I want to spend part of my MetSoc presidency educating our profession about the value women bring to our industry.

Waterloo: Ursula Franklin, 94 years old, who has had an illustrious career as a metallurgist, physicist, educator and activist says, “There’s [still] a lot that needs to be done, but it’s at the side of the powerful, not the powerless.” When it comes to promoting women in engineering, who are the powerful and what needs to be done?

Wells:  Ursula is speaking of the business leaders and educational leaders and recognizing the culture that has been created and that they need to shift the culture so that women can be themselves.  I completely agree with her.  For one, I am very excited to be leading the symposium with many of these women. It will be the first time I am in a room with more technical women than men.

Waterloo: Speaking of technical women, besides your book, where are our female cultural role models?

Wells: That’s a problem. We need to see more of these women portrayed in our media, with more visibility.  I am excited that there may be a new MacGyver TV series, because this time MacGyver is a woman. The recent viral social media campaign #I look like an engineer was fantastic. It helps to showcase people’s misconceptions about who are engineers.   

Waterloo: When you asked Carolyn Hansson, a University of Waterloo cross-appointed professor recently named to the Order of Canada for her contributions as a materials engineer, about how she has balanced career and family she responds:  “The best thing I did as a mother was move to Denmark... [during] the critical years.” She outlines how the company she worked for in Denmark has “seven-and-half-hour days, five days a week, period…I was able to be a good mother. I don’t know how I would been a good mother here.”  It’s as though Hansson was calling out the North American culture of not valuing family time and making 60-80 hour work weeks and inflexible schedules the norm for everyone who want successful careers. What do you think about this?

Wells: It means the powerful need to put policies in place so that women – or parents for that matter -   don’t have to stand out and seen to be accommodated differently because they have to go pick up their child. These are some very simple policies that allow for flexibility. The biggest thing you can do for women is give them flexibility with their time and schedule, both in terms of travel as well as the work day. You really have to value the work we do – both women and men – versus the time put in.

Waterloo: Is there a common thread these women share besides being female and an engineer/scientist?

Wells: There is a diversity amongst them, but all of them, from a very young age, were interested in math and sciences; all are very creative people, and almost all of them have enjoyed a very fulfilling family life as well as professional life.  They were all able to keep things in perspective so when they hit an obstacle they had a determination to succeed. You can see the evolution from when they just started out in their field to entering senior leadership roles and how their confidence was built up and the supporting role that mentors played in their development and how important that was. This is what Waterloo Engineering’s outreach program does. It profiles and provides role models for girls, and youth in general, so they can see the people they can become.  Role models and mentors are critical pieces of shaping the young minds of today.

Pearl Sullivan, the first female dean of the Faculty of Engineering at University of Waterloo, is also profiled by Wells and Millar in Woman of Impact. “These women are the role models we can look to,” says Wells.