Megha Sharma set her sights on engineering in high school after her physics teacher told her she’d be great at it. “It was like a light bulb turned on,” she says.
Sharma had the aptitude for math and science, and loved solving problems, but, until that moment, she hadn’t considered a career in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). Women are underrepresented in most STEM careers, especially engineering. In 2021, women accounted for just 14.2 per cent of professional engineers and 21.2 per cent of professional geoscientists, according to the Association of Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta (APEGA).
After one year in the engineering transfer program at MacEwan University, Sharma became an engineering undergrad at the University of Alberta. First-year engineering is notoriously difficult, with demanding coursework and heavy course loads. But the real challenge, she says, was the culture of the program — a microcosm of the discipline — which she found “hyper-masculine” and exclusive.
“As a woman trying to fit in, you definitely are trying to be more masculine or bring out more masculine traits,” she says.
Frustrated, Sharma got involved with advocacy work, including the U of A-based non-profit Women in Science Engineering Scholarship and Technology (WISEST). She also helped establish a new group on campus called Diversity in Engineering. The organization’s mandate is the inclusion of under-represented groups in STEM. While serving as the group’s vice-president of research, she earned a grant from the university to study the experiences of her classmates, which later evolved into an annual survey administered by the faculty of engineering. Sharma received a second grant to complete a literature review of historical failures in STEM that were due to the lack of a gender-based lens.
But, when she graduated and began working in the oil and gas sector, she was stunned by the un-inclusive workplaces in which she found herself. “No one prepares you for that,” she says.
But Sharma persisted, and is on track to earning her professional engineer designation and finding her footing in the field. “I was meant to be an engineer,” she says.
This fall, she became APEGA’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Coordinator, a role that involves leading the Women and Gender Equality (WAGE) grant project, a research study on the impact of COVID-19 on women in engineering and geoscience, funded by the Government of Canada to the tune of $400,000.
Her work also supports APEGA’s 30-by-30 Initiative, the goal of which is to have 30 per cent of its membership be women by 2030, and to identify pandemic barriers facing women and helping employers reduce them.