Women in STEM: Barbara Robinson

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What made you want to participate in this panel discussion?

I was moved to participate in this panel because it is essential that we get more women in STEM fields. Women think differently than men so we have a great deal to add to the conversation. However, working in a STEM field is not for the faint of heart. There are many reasons why it is more challenging to be female. Indeed, many studies have shown that women who graduate engineering leave the profession within 5 to 7 years, citing lack of acceptance, opportunity, respect, etc. I’d like women considering STEM fields to be aware of this.

What are some things you do outside of work to help you develop personally and professionally?

Well, I am naturally a jock so keeping up with sports was easy for me, but almost essential in STEM fields. I took golf lessons early in my career and golf about as well as the average men in my field. I also play hockey (which I have done all my life) so organized company hockey clubs as well as client hockey challenges, which again helped me to be one of the “guys”. This won’t be as important for younger women, but a lot of work gets done on the golf course. Long-term, I have many friendships in my field, mostly with men (necessarily). I have intentionally reached out to other senior women for a support network, but in my cohort, we were very few. I do an awful lot of volunteering. I maintain a balanced life, which is important in any career.

What has been the biggest learning curve in your career?

As I progressed in my career, I realized that being a woman in charge of men was always going to be problematic for some men. When I reached the “pinnacle” of my career (City Engineer for Kitchener), it became obvious that being female was a real detriment to succeeding. Also, on numerous occasions I went to HR with concerns over how I was being treated. It never worked out well. Also, how to deflect male advances without making a scene. Hopefully, in this day and age, that is changing. Now that I run my own company, I don’t (much) have to deal with these things.

When you think about your journey thus far, what would you say was the one trait that helped you get you to where you are today?

One trait that has worked for me was that I am naturally assertive. However, a woman who is assertive is considered “bossy” or “bitchy” as opposed to a natural leader, as a man would be perceived. I was told as much by very senior management in one of my senior roles. Not being assertive will probably result in not getting those promotions, but it’s a two-edged sword. But, regardless of anything else, always be kind to everyone around you, from the cleaners to the admin staff. That is the true test of character.

What advice would you give to other women working in STEM?

Do it!  Just be prepared, form a network of support, ask for help, work hard, and you’ll get there… Make sure you marry someone who believes in true equality (e.g. emotional energy of running a household and raising kids) 😊

Who do you look up to, and why?

Catherine Fife, MPP for Waterloo; my best friend (not in STEM) who is a beautiful soul, people who are actively involved in community, my sister-in-law.

Barbara A. Robinson, M.A.Sc., P.Eng., established Norton Engineering Inc. in 2015 following a successful 25-year private sector career and highlighted by two years as City Engineer for Kitchener.  Norton initiated the ongoing “Addressing Unacceptable Inflow and Infiltration (I/I) in New Subdivisions”, which is currently gaining national attention; she has given dozens of presentations on the topic.  She functions as senior QA/QC on Halton Region’s Downspout Disconnection projects and the Fort Erie Pollution Control Plan.  She has provided ongoing wastewater engineering services for the Township of Woolwich since 2001. Norton was works regularly with the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction (ICLR) to undertake various projects, including a long-term project to calculate the “Societal Costs of I/I” and “Engineering Data and Flood Risk”. Barbara is currently Chairwoman of the CSA committee to develop a new national Basement Flood Protection Guideline (expected to evolve into a Standard), which was just posted for public review.  She sits on the WEAO Collections Systems Committee, ICLR Municipal Advisory Committee, and advises on the Durham Climate Resistance Standard for New Houses and the new BC Housing Standard. She also works for NRC and SCC.

Barbara works as a paid infrastructure columnist with CBC Radio, speaking on a wide range of infrastructure and engineering issues such as sewers, flooding, potholes & water towers. The column is regularly delivered on CBC Radio’s morning shows across Ontario.

Women in STEM: Abhilasha Bhatia

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What made you want to participate in this panel discussion?

I have found myself at the center of "Women in STEM" topic for over a decade now. I started observing the disparity in gender while I was pursuing my Bachelor's in Technology degree. It was annoying to get attention for being a woman in tech rather than being a student willing to gain knowledge and grow. This only became more stark when I pursued higher studies and worked alongside, mostly male, colleagues. I wonder why gender difference is even a thing when everyone is working towards the same goal. But unfortunately it is at the workplaces. I want to participate in the panel to discuss and throw light on some of the challenges that I have faced, measures I have taken to overcome them, and the few that I am still fighting off. I also want to participate on this platform to send out a message to young girls to not be afraid of technology careers, and to the dominant forces in tech to step out of the way.

What are some things you do outside of work to help you develop personally and professionally?

I am a science geek. I like reading science and technology articles, mainly around astronomical sciences and, in this past year, analytics and data science. For centering my chi, I resort to ways to let my artistic expression flow in the form painting and dancing. It is very important for me to see life through different perspectives, and therefore enjoy listening to panel discussions and podcasts.

What has been the biggest learning curve in your career?

I think working with startups has been biggest learning curve for me thus far. One hustles, develops, learns on a daily basis. You join the dots together piece by piece, block by block. There is an open environment of ideas flowing, there is a culture you are contributing to strongly. Another point I would like to add is, experiencing different ethnic cultures and work environments has also contributed significantly to my growth.

When you think about your journey thus far, what would you say was the one trait that helped you get you to where you are today?

I believe in not quitting. And you can only be confident about it if you are open to learning and open to changes. All this while, even today, I keep my mind open to learning new things, be it more efficient ways of approaching a problem, to improving ways I can be more efficient ways, to optimizing my contributions.

What advice would you give to other women working in STEM?

Do not give up. It is a fact that the number of women who actually pick STEM as their careers, do not continue thereon for long, for a variety of reasons. I would like to ask them to remind themselves of the reasons they chose to be in a scientific field and what's holding them off now.   

Who do you look up to, and why?

There have been many people part of my journey that I look up to. My family has all along been a guiding light for the path I have chosen. My friends to challenge me to a competition. My colleagues and mentors at workplace, some of whom have challenged my beliefs and some of whom have helped me with ways to let my voice heard in a crowd.

Some public figures whose biographies, writings, and speeches I have thoroughly enjoyed are Dr. Kalpana Chawla (an astronaut), Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam (a scientist, and former President of India), Jocelyn Goldfein, and Steve Jobs.

Abhilasha Bhatia is a software engineer at Finaeo Inc. Her forte is backend development. From time to time she delves into frontend and dev-op projects that give control of the full development stack. She is a self-proclaimed science geek and loves to read articles on scientific innovation, especially about astronomical sciences.

Abhilasha’s encounters with technology started of as a kid in India playing with handheld game consoles. The very first building blocks were learning the “turtle graphics” in 3rd grade, using the Logo programming language. Followed by the widely discussed Y2K bug which gave her a realization of how technology is converging the world. Ever so pumped up with it, she took off to pursue an undergraduate in Computer Science from a state university in India and then decided to move on to pursuing higher studies in the United States. These were the years she faced the stark truth about the number of women opting for technology as their major. The female:male ratios in classes were astonishing. Fighting off the complex of “being the only girl” or “one of the two” to raise hands or participate in hackathons, she continued to tread her way past it to enter the workforce where the story wasn’t very different. As one goes up the ladder, the ratio bends further towards one side.

Those experiences made her question the causes behind such disparity among female students picking up STEM majors to actually pursuing and staying in these fields as a career. This is the major reason Abhilasha want her voice to make a difference by reaching to a greater audience.