Allison O’Neil. (Phil McLachlan, Kelowna Capital News)

Allison O’Neil. (Phil McLachlan, Kelowna Capital News)

Okanagan College prof encourages women to excel in math and science

Allison O’Neil is works in the engineering department at the Kelowna campus

In this edition of Women in Business, women were interviewed who are employed in typically male-dominated industries or in a position that was historically filled by a man.

These women share their stories of being underrepresented in their field and leadership roles – in the hope that their perseverance and success become the guiding light for the next generation of women in business, so they continue to break glass ceilings and meet their goals.

Women in Business shows who the movers and the shakers are in Kelowna and that there is always a space to share stories of successful women.

Allison O’Neil was one of four women out of 40 students who graduated from the engineering program at the University of Calgary more than 20 years ago, and since that time she says that demographic hasn’t changed.

According to the now department chair and professor of the water engineering technology program at Okanagan College, only 10 per cent of those attending school for engineering are women.

She says programs vary and there are those with a higher percentage of female attendance, such as in environmental engineering.

“The water engineering program that I run, we usually see about 20 to 35 per cent women, which is better but still not equitable,” said O’Neil.

She said the reason women shy away from engineering could be the perception that they don’t belong in that field.

“I think women are self-selected out of math and science at a young age. They are told girls aren’t good at math, they are good at communication or art courses,” explained O’Neil.

The irony of this perception, according to O’Neil, is that women usually rate within the top 10 per cent of any engineering program.

“I have heard from students in my program that they didn’t take sciences in high school because they felt they didn’t belong there, for some reason or another. Society gives a sort of subliminal message that girls are really sensitive too, that this is not their place,” she said.

O’Neil explained that women will often study biological sciences or chemistry rather than physics, however, there is no difference between how men and women’s brains function and there is no statistical difference in aptitudes.

And, this Okanagan College professor proves just that. O’Neil started her career in geotechnical, before switching to environmental engineering with a focus on soil and groundwater remediation.

She would go on to open a branch in Kelowna for her engineering company, but after the birth of her second child she had to take a step back as it became harder to balance her workflow.

“That is the thing about engineering, in the past, it hasn’t been super friendly for women who are parents. The consulting world is notorious for long work hours … and when women want to take time off to have kids they are passed over for a promotion, even if you’re extraordinary capable.”

In 2006, O’Neil would make the jump to teaching and be offered a job at Okanagan College.

Now, she has the opportunity to engage with young women and guide them into their future.

“I tell them to get promoted as fast as they can because this is what it is going to take for this to make changes at the top,” explained O’Neil. “Until we (see) a more diverse leadership, you won’t have a diverse workforce.”

O’Neil goes on to say that women who do enter the engineering field should remember each other and hire other females in order to build a more inclusive team.

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