The Spring 2010 issue of U magazine introduced Dr. Elizabeth Cannon as the University of Calgary's eighth president. The first woman to hold the top job, her accomplishments and qualifications speak for themselves; in addition to earning several awards and accolades, Dr. Cannon achieved her doctorate degree in geomatics engineering, and was appointed dean of the Schulich School of Engineering in 2006.
Although it is always exciting to see educated women in top positions, it is even more exciting when the accomplishments of these women speak specifically towards overcoming gender 'roles' and stereotypes in our society. Dr. Cannon has already begun to shatter these various stereotypes. Cannon has worked to attract more women into engineering by establishing programs such as the Cybermentor, an online system for Alberta girls between the ages of 11 and 18 in rural areas, which aims to mentor and connect them with science and engineering professionals in other communities. She has also established Explore IT, a program which works with other post-secondary institutions in Calgary to provide grade 9 girls with a day of information and activities surrounding the field of information technology. According to Dr. Cannon, “Both of these programs, in addition to our annual Women in Engineering Day, provide strong opportunities for young women to see what is available to them and for us to showcase role models and future career paths. And it’s working – 24 percent of our undergraduate students at the Schulich School of Engineering are female, which is the highest of all the major engineering schools in Canada (U magazine, 14). I have always been committed to encouraging youth to reach their dreams, with a particular emphasis on encouraging young women to pursue science and engineering careers. It’s very important that the next generation feel empowered to take on any career that they are passionate about and not be restricted to perceived gender stereotypes” (U magazine, 13).
I think there is a need for encouragement when it comes to women in science and engineering, especially when one considers the impact that historical events have had on women in this field. The Ecole Polytechnique Massacre in 1989 is just one extreme example; 25 year old Marc Lepine walked into the engineering school one morning and shot 24 women, fourteen of which died, and killed four men before killing himself. He specifically targeted women, claiming that he was ‘fighting feminism.’ Less extreme is the socially constructed belief that men are ‘better’ than women in the fields of math and science; I recently visited the Body Worlds exhibit in Calgary, and found a large poster explaining that men are more mentally apt than women at solving complex mathematical equations because the two genders primarily use different sides of the brain in thinking and rationalizing. I think it is fantastic that Dr. Cannon has been working to encourage young women to squish gender stereotypes and follow their dreams, and I can’t wait to follow her career as the U of C’s first female president.