The Women Who Started it All

December 04, 2020

Written by: Vanessa Hennessey

In 1989, The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council launched the NSERC Women in Engineering Chair, and in 1996, the program was expanded to its current version, the Chairs for Women in Science and Engineering (CWSE) program. The goal of the program is to increase the participation of women in science and engineering and to provide role models for women active in, and considering, careers in these fields. The CWSE Program is regional—with one Chair for each of the Atlantic, Quebec, Ontario, Prairies, and British Columbia/Yukon regions. 

WWEST has been chaired by Dr. Lesley Shannon at SFU since 2015, but the program began in its first iteration as the NSERC Women in Engineering Chair in 1989 with Dr. Monique Frize as the Chairholder. After the program was restructured and expanded in 1996, the Chair was split into the various regions across Canada and Dr. Maria Klawe (University of British Columbia), Dr. Florence-Mary Williams (Memorial University of Newfoundland), Dr. Elizabeth Cannon (University of Calgary), Dr. Monique Frize (Carleton University), and Dr. Claire Deschênes (Université Laval) were appointed as Chairs. 

Read on for the profiles of these women who have truly been pioneers for advancing women and other underrepresented groups in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) in Canada. By being the first Chairs of the NSERC CWSE program, they have increased awareness of the hardships women in STEM encounter, have inspired women to advance in their careers and education, and have mobilized allies to help along the way. Past chairs of the program after 2002 can be seen here.

Source: Avenue Calgary

Dr. Elizabeth Cannon is a Canadian engineer specializing in geomatics engineering and president Emerita of the University of Calgary. From 2010 to 2018, she served as the university's eighth president and vice-chancellor, the first alumna to hold that position. Since January 2019, she has been President Emerita of the University of Calgary. Dr. Cannon is a Professional Engineer, a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, a fellow of the Canadian Academy of Engineering and an elected foreign associate of the National Academy of Engineering. She served as the Chair of the Canada Research Knowledge Network and the Chair of Universities Canada. She is also a member of the Science, Technology and Innovation Council (STIC) and the U15 Group of Canadian Research Universities. 

An expert in geomatics engineering, Dr. Cannon has led research at the forefront of Global Positioning Systems (GPS) in both industrial and academic environments. She has commercialized technology to over 200 agencies worldwide. Dr. Cannon’s work has been recognized with many accolades, including the Johannes Kepler Award from the U.S. Institute of Navigation, APEGA’s Centennial Leadership Award and the Gold Medal Award from Engineers Canada in 2013.Throughout her career, Dr. Cannon has championed women in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). From 1997 to 2002, she held the NSERC/Petro-Canada Chair for Women in Science and Engineering. In this capacity, she worked to raise public awareness about science and engineering careers for women, developing several innovative programs to encourage women to explore careers in STEM fields.

Source: Le Soleil

Dr. Claire Deschênes is a world-renowned expert in fluid mechanics despite having been the only woman in her class and the first female engineering professor at Université Laval. A world-renowned expert in hydraulic turbine technology, hydrodynamics, and fluid mechanics, she founded the Laboratoire de Machines Hydrauliques (LAMH) in 1989, an internationally-recognized centre that conducts hydraulic turbines research. Claire was made a fellow of Engineers Canada in 2015 and has twice been named a Le Soleil and Radio-Canada laureate in the science and research category in recognition of her distinguished contributions. Claire is also a dedicated promoter of women in science and engineering. She served as NSERC/Alcan Chair for Women in Science and Engineering from 1997 to 2006 and co-founded three non-profit organizations that support and promote women in science and engineering - the International Network for Women Engineers and Scientists (INWES), the Association de la francophonie à propos des femmes en sciences, technologies, ingénierie et mathématiques (AFFESTIM), and the INWES Educational and Research Institute (ERI). In 1999, Claire was named the first YWCA woman of distinction laureate for the Quebec region in the science, technology, and health category, and in 2002, The Canadian Council of Professional Engineers gave her the award for support of women in engineering. See an interview with Dr. Deschênes in CIM Magazine.

Source: Carleton University

Dr. Monique Frize is a Canadian biomedical engineer and professor, knowledgeable in medical instruments and decision support systems. Notably, her scientific research and outreach efforts led her to receive the prestigious distinction of Officer of the Order of Canada. She was the first woman to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree from the program of Electrical Engineering at the University of Ottawa in 1966. Frize has received five honourary doctorates from the University of Ottawa, York University, Lakehead University, Mount Saint Vincent's University, and Ryerson University. She has also been awarded the Professional Engineers of Ontario and Ontario Society of Professional Engineers' highest honour, the Gold Medal, as well as being inducted as an Officer into the Order of Canada and being named a fellow of the Canadian Academy of Engineering. 

Dr. Frize was the first Chairholder of the Nortel-NSERC Women in Engineering Chair at the University of New Brunswick. In an interview with CIM magazine, she describes how the Montreal Massacre drove her to “[move] the program into fifth gear immediately.” She says, “My first day in the position was December 11, 1989, the day of the funeral for several of the victims. I went to the funeral in Montreal and returned to Fredericton to give a talk to around 400 people at University of New Brunswick. What I said very determinedly was that we must have 1,000 more women engineers for every one who had been killed in the massacre.” While Chair of the program, she gave more than 35 speeches each year across Canada, a large number of media interviews, and spoke to students from grades 1 to 12 at dozens of schools. She says in the interview, “The massacre made me very angry and made me determined to help change the culture in engineering; the obstacles for women to consider a non-traditional career had to be removed.”

The NSERC committee submitted 21 recommendations to the council, one of which was to establish 5 regional Chairs across Canada. She applied to be the Ontario Chair and won. She was then able to work with 4 other women across the country on advancement of women in STEM, instead of working as the only Chair, and says, “It was wonderful.” Read the full interview with Dr. Frize here.

Source: University of British Columbia

Dr. Maria Klawe is a computer scientist and the fifth president of Harvey Mudd College in California. Originally from Toronto, she became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 2009. Dr. Klawe is a renowned computer scientist and scholar, and was also dean of engineering and professor of computer science at Princeton University prior to joining Harvey Mudd College. Klawe joined Princeton from the University of British Columbia where she served as dean of science from 1998 to 2002, vice president of student and academic services from 1995 to 1998 and head of the Department of Computer Science from 1988 to 1995. Prior to UBC, Klawe spent eight years with IBM Research in California, and two years at the University of Toronto. She received her PhD (1977) and BSc (1973) in mathematics from the University of Alberta.

As the NSERC-IBM chair for Women in Science and Engineering, she was in charge of increasing female participation in science and engineering. During her five years as the chair appointment she increased female computer science majors from 16% to 27% and increased the number of female computer science faculty from 2 to 7. She was also a personal friend of Anita Borg and served as the chair of the Board of Trustees of the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology from 1996 to 2011. Dr. Klawe attributes the lack of women in technical fields due to how the media portrays women. In an interview with PBS she explains how TV shows in the 1970s showed men along with women who had successful careers such as doctors or lawyers and that caused the number of women going into medicine skyrocket. In 2017, she was a featured speaker at the SFU President’s Dream Colloquium on Women in Technology, hosted by WWEST.  

Source: Memorial University of Newfoundland

Dr. Florence-Mary Williams was an expert in Arctic technology, technology innovation, and diversity management. For ten years, Dr. Williams was Director General of Canada’s Institute for Ocean Technology, responsible for the strategic direction of research programs, large scale experimental facilities, and the transfer of technology to industrial partners. In this capacity, she initiated a new National Research Council program, in Arctic Technologies. She held positions as a Senior Research Officer at NRC, Professor of Engineering at Memorial University of Newfoundland, and, while at Memorial, the NSERC-Petro-Canada Chair for Women in Science and Engineering for Atlantic Canada. 

Dr. Williams held a PhD in Applied Mechanics from Simon Fraser University. Her own research on the effects of ice on ships and offshore structures, and the material properties of ice on the ocean, has motivated extensive field work in the Arctic, the Antarctic, and around Newfoundland.

She was the author or co-author of more than 100 publications, including the book, Becoming Leaders: A Practical Handbook for Women in Engineering, Science, and Technology. Dr. Williams was fluent in English and French. She served on numerous national boards and task forces, and represented Canada internationally in ocean and Arctic affairs.

Dr. Williams passed away in November 2015.  

You can get a glimpse of the activities of the current NSERC Chairs for Women in Science and Engineering at the Ontario Chair for Women in Science and Engineering’s website.