We are often told that women students in STEM face challenges due to their gender, but what do those barriers look like at U of T?

The Varsity interviewed five women members of the 2019–2020 University of Toronto Aerospace Team (UTAT) executive team to discuss the challenges of gender bias in engineering and the real value of representation for marginalized groups in STEM.

The UTAT is a design team for student aerospace projects, including drones, rockets, and satellites. In recent years, it has become one of the most notable STEM-related student groups at UTSG after a 2017 referendum established a levy from students to launch the team’s first student-built microsatellite.

Originally scheduled to launch in late 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed back the launch of the HERON Mk II microbiology satellite to 2021. It will be launched in partnership with the Indian Space Research Organization.

Meet the team

Brytni Richards is an undergraduate student on her professional experience year in engineering science, specializing in robotics. She is the firmware systems lead for the UTAT’s second satellite, codenamed FINCH.

Cassandra Chanen is an undergraduate student in engineering science majoring in engineering physics. She is the 2020–2021 director for the Space Systems division and was previously the 2019–2020 missions operations lead for the same division. “ ‘Mission Operations’ is broadly anything related to where the satellite is and how we communicate with it,” Chanen wrote.

Madeline Zhang is a recent graduate of engineering science who majored in aerospace and pursued a certificate in engineering leadership. She was the 2019–2020 multi-rotor chief engineer of the Unmanned Aerial Systems team. “As the chief engineer, I oversee all four technical subsystems, making sure the project is on track and the design [meets] competition requirements,” Zhang wrote.

Nikoo Givehchian, an undergraduate student in engineering science, is the director of Aerospace Policy. The Aerospace Policy division recently launched The UTAT Space Review, a website for space news. Givehchian is also involved in the software development for the HERON Mk II.

Kimberly Ren recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree in engineering science. She is a technical member and the microfluidics lead of the Space Systems division. In this role, she “[designs] and [manufactures] the microfluidics system in the payload of the [HERON Mk II] satellite.” Ren wrote that this system “houses the microbiology experiment and interfaces with the payload instrumentation.”

Ren is also the director of leadership development. Through this, she “[heads] initiatives to develop leadership skills in all [UTAT] members.”

Facing imposter syndrome

Chanen describes the challenge of feeling unqualified among accomplished peers. For example, she didn’t join a club in her first year because she thought she didn’t have the necessary skills.

Now, she says ‘yes’ to the opportunities that come her way after realizing that most people don’t start off with all the skills they need to be successful on a design team.

“I know that even if I don’t know how to do it yet, there are people that can help me figure it out, and I’ll learn a lot more from trying something new instead of passing it on to someone who already has that skill.”

Ren views her gender as a challenge, noting that the way it impacts her and other women’s interactions with people is not necessarily straightforward.

“For example, does Male A interrupt me when I talk because I’m a woman or because he interrupts everyone?” Ren wrote. “There have been a lot of times where I wonder if my gender makes people treat me worse like that.”

Ren mentioned that during her university career, there have been many instances she can think of where she would have received different treatment had she been a man.

Ren wrote, “When you are told… that your voice isn’t as important as the man next to you, or that you aren’t as smart as the man next to you, or that you are a target for sexual harassment, you start to believe it. Unfortunately, I did start to believe that, and I think a lot of other women in engineering believe it too.”

Givehchian wrote that she has not faced challenges based on her gender, but she recognizes her privilege. “I never had the mentality that I was limited in what I could do as a result of my gender, simply because I was exposed to many examples of both men and women who are smart and successful, as I’d hoped to become myself,” Givehchian wrote.

“I hope that the privilege I had in growing up without experiencing discrimination becomes less of a privilege in the future, and more of a standard globally.”

The meaning of representation takes on many different forms

“To me, being represented means your perspective, experiences, and ideas are considered and valued,” Givehchian wrote, noting that representation can look different depending on the team.

For Richards, representation lies at the heart of an organization or team. That spirit finds its way into the attitudes of an organization’s leaders. “A leader is someone who represents not only their organization, but the people they lead,” Richards wrote. “They represent their ideals, which they may then try to pass onto others.”

Something that was striking to Chanen was the low number of women professors she had in her first and second year. “To me representation – for women specifically – means seeing women represented at every level in STEM fields,” she wrote.

This was echoed by Zhang, who wrote, “It is very important to have someone close to you with [a] similar background to look up to… Throughout undergrad, seeing my fellow female engineers and scientists pursuing their passion despite the various forms of challenges they face is certainly inspiring.”

Ren wrote that academia still has more work to do to achieve adequate representation. “We have started to move the needle on the representation of women in the student population at U of T, but at more senior levels in industry and in academia, representation is still poor which directly affects the experiences of these new woman students,” Ren wrote.

Advice for women pursuing STEM

“Get as involved as you can! U of T is a great environment to be in as a [woman] in engineering,” Chanen wrote. In 2018, 39.8 per cent of the incoming engineering class at U of T were women — the highest percentage of any Canadian engineering school.

Givehchian wrote, “I firmly believe that anyone, regardless of whatever category they fall into, can do anything they are truly interested in.”

“I would encourage all women to speak up about the discrimination they are subjected to,” Ren wrote.

“I think it is important to keep this discussion at the forefront until significant improvements are made,” Ren continued. “I know that all women in STEM have stories that have similarities with mine, but we aren’t loud enough in talking about them so it seems like the problem isn’t as bad as it is. Let’s show people, especially our male allies, how bad it is so we can all work together to improve the situation.”