Engineering research with an EDI perspective

Equity, diversity and inclusion
Faculty of Engineering
Students Isa-Bella Leclair and Michelle Liu
Students Isa-Bella Leclair and Michelle Liu
Students Isa-Bella Leclair and Michelle Liu are working to make equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) an important matter for the engineering community.

Leclair and Liu want to show that including EDI considerations in engineering will allow the profession to better serve the public. “Our mandate as engineers goes beyond applying science in a vacuum,” says Leclair. “There is a social aspect in the work we do.”

For Liu, “Engineers have statutory and professional obligations to design things that serve all members of the public and not just those who align with the dominant identities in the profession.”

Leclair is a Francophone completing her master’s in civil engineering. She identifies as a pansexual woman living with a physical disability. She has personally experienced accessibility challenges in academic activities, including having to walk on a narrow retaining wall, wade in a turbulent river, dodge unmarked excavations on a worksite and hike through thick woods with fallen trees.

“I often had to carry out these activities, which are a great challenge for those with physical disabilities,” says Leclair. “Moreover, the safety equipment I wore was not properly sized for women.” She adds that, for women living with a disability, “more formal spaces are needed to communicate these concerns to your professors, TAs or classmates.”

Leclair’s master’s research, under Professor Martin Noël, looks at how accessibility is considered in engineering design. “I want to teach others what living with a disability is like. We need to wonder: can people use these designs? What are the environmental and social costs of current designs?”

Leclair surveyed 220 Canadian civil engineers and building professionals and reviewed accredited engineering curricula. She found that 60% of building professionals don’t see themselves as responsible for accessibility. Moreover, accessibility and social responsibility were almost completely absent in the engineering curricula she reviewed.

Leclair is encouraged, though, that 87% of survey participants believed that education of civil engineering students is an effective means to improve universal design and accessibility.

As for Liu, she is both a PhD student in engineering and a Juris Doctor (JD) student in common law. She self-identifies as a racialized, queer and cisgender woman.

Liu describes her experiences in both school and the industry as an openly queer Asian-Canadian woman as violent. She cites examples such as her exclusion from teams due to other members’ discomfort with or fear of her queer identity. “I have also been on many construction sites where my colleagues would grope each other, yell homophobic or racist comments, and more,” Liu says. “How this kind of violence continues to be the norm in a first-class, right-to-practise, public-serving profession is beyond me, but I hope we can move the needle by a little bit in my lifetime.”

To increase EDI considerations in engineering, Liu is conducting her PhD work on National Building Code of Canada provisions dealing with “users” and “occupants,” under the supervision of Professor Beatriz Martin-Perez at the Faculty of Engineering and Professor Jena McGill at the Faculty of Law. She is examining whether subjects used in testing and modelling were representative of the public or just of the dominant groups in engineering, such as non-disabled, cisgender and heterosexual men. “I hope to recommend changes to the code that will allow all members of the public to experience the built environment equitably,” says Liu.

For both students, making engineering more inclusive means improving the professional experience of equity-seeking engineers, as well as the experience of all members of the public. “We not only need to shift the culture in engineering schools and workplaces, but we also need to empower equity-seeking persons to persist in this profession so that they can be there to make this change,” says Leclair.

Liu adds: “Disrupting the objectivity of engineering will facilitate new ideas and allow a new generation to incorporate EDI in engineering work.” 

Together, Michelle Liu and Isa-Bella Leclair are showing that engineers can make a significant contribution to equity and inclusion in Canadian society.

By Diego Herrera and Kirtarath Kaur, uOttawa Research Management Services.

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