Women in STEM: An Interview with Réjeanne Aimey
March is National Engineering Month — a celebration of engineering excellence commemorated by Engineers Canada since 1992. This year’s theme of “There’s a place for you” recognizes inclusion, diversity and opportunity in the engineering field. Coupled with today being International Women’s Day, we thought it the perfect occasion to profile inspiring women in the engineering profession and show budding young female technicians and scientists how rewarding a career in engineering can be. Below is Adecco’s interview with Réjeanne Aimey, P.Eng, MBA — an experienced and inspirational engineering professional based out of Toronto — discussing not only her experience as a woman in STEM but also a woman of colour in this highly competitive and historically exclusive field.
Réjeanne is Canadian born and was raised in Trinidad and Tobago from the age of 3 to the end of high school. While in Trinidad she became heavily involved in music from the age of 6, learning music theory and playing the piano to achieve the highest grade certifications possible from the Trinity College of Music in London, UK. She attended the prestigious Bishop Anstey High School, a school for girls where entrance is determined based on academic ability. After her return to Canada, she attended the University of Western Ontario, in London, where she completed a Bachelor of Engineering Science in Mechanical Engineering. Réjeanne’s professional pursuits have been multiple and included work in R&D, structural, noise and vibration, and durability analysis using finite element techniques, lean continuous improvement, nuclear reactor engineering, heavy industrial equipment maintenance, software implementation, and SR&ED consulting. She is also a member of Professional Engineers Ontario and the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers. While working, she completed a Master of Business Administration from the University of Phoenix. Réjeanne’s goal is to increase her visibility in the hope that it will encourage others to exceed their goals, to foster STEM learning among youth, and to advocate for the engineering profession in Ontario.
What made you first fall in love with STEM?
I’ve had a curiosity about the world for as long as I can remember. It first started off at a very young age with my toys. I remember wanting to learn how they worked and most importantly — how they moved. I realized quickly that, at first, my brother’s toys seemed much more engaging than those given directly to me. Even today, boys’ toys seem to have pre-determined motion built into them while girls’ toys are stationary and require the child to use her creativity to create motion! So I played with them both, but the boys’ toys immediately satisfied my curiosity and developed my intellect much more.
Also, there was always some interesting project happening around my home that I was curious about. These ranged from the mixing of cement and gardening to building a dog house, an outdoor pond, or baking a cake. Lots of stimulation for me there.
When I started school and was first exposed to science, there was no question that it was for me. As I was exposed to more and more topics, my interest grew and there was no looking back.
Growing up, did you always want to get into the engineering field?
To tell you the truth, I always knew it was an option, but I wasn’t completely sure in my teenage years because of my love of art. I am no Monet, but I recall thinking that I loved them both equally and considered architecture to be the perfect marriage between art and science. In the end, though, I chose engineering because I felt it was much more stable and I could always pursue my artistic endeavours through other avenues.
I should add that my father is a civil engineer and there are many other types of engineers in my extended family. Many people that I’ve mentioned this to think that an engineering path was guaranteed for me, but my family never sat me down and told me to do engineering. When I did mention my decision, they were happily supportive nonetheless.
Did you have a mentor/role model in STEM that inspired or encouraged you to get into the field?
“I can’t recall one black female engineer or scientist whom I looked to for inspiration, but I recall many women who had broken gender barriers…”
The high school I went to instilled in us that there is no limit to our pursuits. I can’t recall one black female engineer or scientist whom I looked to for inspiration, but I recall many women who had broken gender barriers in various other fields. All I knew is that I liked motion and science, I did well at it academically, I could do whatever I wanted, and engineering was it.
Have you encountered sexism and/or racism in your technical education and profession?
I would answer “yes, ” but it did feel more like racism than sexism. I feel that I can make that determination because though I was born in Canada, I was raised in another country that is a melting pot of a variety of races and cultures. My family members held positions in their chosen fields, most country leaders looked exactly like me, I was surrounded by others who mostly looked like me, no one’s ambition was tempered in academia due to their family’s socio-economic status — so there was no question about my abilities or pursuits. I attended one of the best high schools and studied alongside some of the most intelligent and successful women I will ever meet in this lifetime. So I know what equal and preferential treatment feels like and there was a definite shift in that feeling once I arrived back in Canada.
How did you overcome it — mentally and practically?
“My character is defined by a variety of pursuits — when things appear to not go well in one area, my other interests keep me happily engaged and entertained.”
My ambition, resolve, drive, and determination is strong — qualities instilled in me by my family, friends, teachers, and elders. It definitely helped growing up in the environment that I did. For the most part, I ignored any slights I noticed along my journey and was grateful for the opportunities I did receive. A valuable opportunity always seemed to become available to me when I needed it, and that has made up for all the treatment I received that I felt was racist, sexist, or unfair. To be fair to those who introduced these unnecessary barriers, I truly do not believe some of them were fully aware that decisions they made were based more on perceptions of my race and culture than on my actual abilities.
Also, I suppose that because my character is defined by a variety of pursuits — when things appear to not go well in one area, my other interests keep me happily engaged and entertained.
How do you think we can better encourage girls and women — particularly women of colour — to get into engineering?
First off, I think that kids should always be bombarded with opportunities to learn about science and technology. STEM can be applied to practically every interest area in today’s world, so there really is no excuse for not including a demographic due to their perceived lack of interest. I think that when introduced with qualities that all excellent teachers should exude – intelligence, patience, caring, attentiveness, fairness, and equality – any child would excel in STEM.
Whether male or female, I think we need to start from youth. If we don’t inspire kids through the toys that they play with as a child, or from the positive influence of family members or family friends, then we should be able to attract them to STEM through a fair and equal education system. There are also many extra-curricular endeavours available that can help. One such endeavor I am involved in is the Women in Engineering and Science (WIES) Design Competition which runs over 2 weekends in the summer and is open to kids ages 11 to 14. Last year, we taught kids how to design, build, and market apps for common sports injuries. This year we are hoping to include mechanical design and 3D printing. The solutions that the kids came up with last year rivalled those of professionals. We are looking for sponsors, volunteers, and participants for the competition coming up in July so it would be a great venue for educators and corporate sponsors to get involved and make a difference on the ground.
As a society, we tend to only value those we know, or who look and sounds like us, so until we overcome that, I believe that girls of colour need to see and be engaged by women of colour in STEM fields to know what is possible for them. Profiles like this — along with the recent ‘HERstory In Black’ feature from CBC and How She Hustles — definitely help, so I’d like to express my gratitude to Adecco for including me in your feature.
What practical steps can educators, legislators and employers take to make engineering a more welcoming profession for women?
Educators can help by ensuring that all kids are equally exposed to STEM topics and directing them to resources that foster their interests.
Legislators can help by pushing to eliminate streaming or phasing in schools to ensure all kids (regardless of race or gender) have equal access to information and continue to be stimulated by those who are both more and less intellectually advanced than they are.
Employers can help by providing worthy opportunities to women and minorities, and by establishing audited mentorship programs so that they can advance.
What advice do you have for young women of colour who are considering a career in engineering?
“Giving up is not an option. You can do it.”
My advice would be to go for it. Make sure you keep your grades up and if you need help, keep seeking it until you get it. The right people will always be made available to you once you put in the effort, and you must be prepared for the ‘right people’ not having anything in common with you apart from your love of engineering. Push the boundaries of your learning if you can by becoming involved in STEM projects after school. Disassociate from those who discourage you. If you cannot disassociate, ignore those who discourage you from pursuing what you value, whether it is family or ‘well-meaning’ friends. Giving up is not an option. You can do it.