Women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) are often still the minority in their school and work environments. That’s why Georgian College professor and professional engineer Mary Spencer is committed to dispelling myths and stereotypes about careers in STEM.
She describes careers in engineering as exciting and full of possibility. “The real selling point for me is the creative problem solving,” she said. “Engineers make an impact for the greater good of society, from something routine like roads, bridges and electricity, to providing clean water during disaster relief.”
When speaking with young women, Spencer shares a very personal message. “I tell them about all the times I was told no, or that I wasn’t smart enough,” she said.
Studying STEM in school
Growing up in Texas, Spencer had to take a standardized test in Grade 5 which would dictate the level of math courses she could take throughout high school. Her test results didn’t place her on the university track and she and her parents had to fight hard for permission for her to study at this level.
By the time she went to university, she applied to a variety of programs: journalism, architecture, music, engineering, and nutrition. She decided to study engineering because it had pathways to medicine and law. “It kept the most doors open to me,” she said. But by the third year of her program, she began to love engineering and chose it as her career path.
With her personal experience in mind, she dedicated her master’s degree thesis to researching what Grade 7 and 8 students knew about engineering. This is a pivotal time for students to choose math courses that will impact the trajectory of their future studies.
Launching a career in STEM
After university, Spencer went to work for an engineering firm as an engineer in training (EIT). It was a small office and she was the only female professional. She began to see some of the challenges of civil engineering for women in particular.
“Civil doesn’t lend itself well to a flexible work day,” said Spencer. “You have to have a physical presence at the work site and for some women that can conflict with childcare.”
At the firm, Spencer built a wealth of knowledge and experience, working on a variety of projects including environmental sampling, solar farms, site plans, and road roundabout design. She then moved into a project management role and learned the business side of engineering.
At the same time, she began teaching part time at the college in her town. This eventually led to a career change. In 2015, she became a full-time professor at Georgian in the Civil Engineering Technician and Technology programs.
Helping and teaching youth has always been in Spencer’s blood. She taught Sunday school, she was a camp counsellor, she has coached Special Olympic athletes, and she helped to run programs like Go ENG Girl and ENGenuity while she studied at Queen’s University. Currently, her volunteering involves her local Brownie troop in addition to promoting engineering.
As the only female P.Eng full-time faculty at Georgian, Spencer remains committed to advancing opportunities for women in STEM. She is involved with Engineers Canada’s 30 by 30 program, dedicated to increasing female representation of newly licensed engineers to 30 per cent by the year 2030. She volunteers for National Engineering Month events for students, speaks at conferences, and has worked with Toronto Hydro to deliver a workshop for girls in Grades 7 and 8.
Inside her classroom of predominantly male students, Spencer also shares a simple message with all of her students. “I tell them they need to be a champion of everyone who works with them,” she said.
What advice would Spencer give to females pursuing STEM careers? “Don’t let other people tell you no. Be in the position to tell others what experiences you want. Rely on your own talent and skill sets.”