University of Toronto’s Dr. Cristina Amon, dean of the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering, has been announced as one of the 2011 YWCA Women of Distinction Award recipients. Amon is being recognized for her efforts at breaking gender boundaries and shattering glass ceilings in the field of engineering at home and abroad.

Professor Amon will be one of seven women to receive an award at the 31st Annual YWCA Women of Distinction Awards dinner on May 18. The event will raise funds to support YWCA programmes in the GTA.

In 2006, Amon became the first female dean of Canada’s largest engineering school. During her tenure, she has drastically increased faculty’s female presence; the female faculty has jumped from 21 to 38 members, and the number of women assistant professors grew to 41.5 per cent of the faculty complement in 2008.

Amon says that her career as an engineer is the result of a lifelong spirit of curiosity and inventiveness. “Since I was a child, I’ve always enjoyed trying to figure out and explain how things work,” she said.

Much to her parents’ chagrin, Amon would continually disassemble household items. She recalled taking apart her family’s radio when she was just five years old with hopes of finding little people playing music inside. “It was my first engineering disappointment,” she joked.

At one point, Amon thought that she would pursue a career in the sciences, but switched to engineering because of its practical application. “What really drove me to engineering was […] doing things that would have an impact on peoples’ lives in the close future.”

Amon agrees with the Albert Einstein’s famous statement, that “a scientist studies what is, [and] an engineer studies what never was.” Every day, she is motivated by the opportunity to create things that did not exist before. “No profession releases the spirit of innovation like engineering,” she said.

Dr. Amon, who was born and raised in Uruguay, took undergraduate studies in Venezuela and did her doctoral degree in the United States. As an engineering student in South America, Amon did not find a noticeable difference between the fields’ treatment of males versus females. In fact, she said that there were more women than men studying to be engineers. “The assumption that engineering is not a career for women is a complete misconception,” she said.

As a professional, she found that engineering was severely underrepresented by women. Amon has seen a slow improvement in the perception of women in the field, and says that a large part of the problem is that many people do not fully understand what engineering is all about.

“I think that improving the public understanding of engineering […] will help bring more women into the progression,” she said. She noted the impact that TV shows like CSI have had on the portrayal of certain careers as exciting and rewarding. “The applications for programmes in forensic sciences have increased significantly, and there is a close correlation with [popular] shows.”

Amon thinks that it is important to increase awareness of the contributions women can make in an engineering position. Her outreach plans include the continued development of mentorship programmes like “Skule Sisters,” which pairs U of T female engineering students to high school girls interested in the field. “I think it is so important that young women see [the possibility of] themselves being in positions of leadership in the progression,” she said.

Amon says that the “thrill of looking for innovative solutions to problems” gives her the enthusiasm and energy she needs to overcome any gender barriers that she faces.

After receiving the award, Amon hopes that her success will inspire others to realize their own potential. “I feel a little bit more responsible,��� she said, “to set a good example as a woman in engineering.”

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