Few Black and Indigenous applicants step through the door when positions open up in universities across Ontario, and number only matched by the low number of Indigenous and Black graduate students in STEM disciplines, says Tizazu Mekonnen, assistant professor of chemical engineering at the University of Waterloo.

Currently, we believe there are fewer than 15 Indigenous and Black engineering faculty members across Ontario,” said Mekonnen. “This is an atrociously small number in a faculty of more than 1,000 professors across Ontario engineering faculties, and clearly not reflective of our society.”

Mekonnen confirmed that the province didn’t even supply the “15” figure because Ontario doesn’t keep track of race data in educational institutions. 

“This data point is anecdotal, based on our own experiences with faculties, and informal discussion with the other engineering faculties. We checked with the Council of Ontario Universities (COU) and the Ontario Confederation of Faculty Associations (OCUFA), and they do not currently collect race data – and as such, we couldn’t get better data,” he told IT World Canada.

To address this gap, six universities in Ontario have partnered to create the Indigenous and Black Engineering and Technology (IBET) Momentum Fellowship to expand the pathways for Indigenous and Black students pursuing doctoral degrees in engineering.

Mekonnen is the coordinator of the Waterloo IBET PhD project.

The partnership includes the engineering faculties at the University of Ottawa, McMaster University, the University of Toronto, Queen’s University, Western University and the engineering and math faculties at the University of Waterloo. Each partner university will tailor the program structure and features to support student experience at their institutions.

More complicated than we think

Indigenous and Black students tend to come from a lower-income family than other students. They feel compelled to finish their undergraduate and find a job rather than stay longer at school to study at a PhD level and pursue an academic career, Mekonnen explains. Other barriers include absent mentorship opportunities and a lack of role models in their community.

“When you are a First Nations, Inuit, and Metis or Black first-year student in engineering or math and you see that your professor looks like you with many of the same lived cultural experiences, you are encouraged that you too can succeed and that your presence in academia is welcome, and your voice is heard,” explained Mekonnen. “We hope that other engineering faculties outside Ontario will also share our concerns and join the consortium.”

The IBET PhD Project consists of several layers: Momentum Fellowship, Mentorship Program, and community-wide support (e.g. networking).

Each consortium member is prepared to accept two PhD students (a total of 14 students) in September 2021. The program will continue for the next five years at least, with each of the consortium members accepting two students per year. But, it can continue further depending on the financial contribution obtained from other donors/sponsors, Mekonnen told the publication.

Not just an Ontario problem

Overall, Black professors make up a small proportion of teachers in postsecondary institutions in Canada. A 2016 report from the Canadian Association of University Teachers found that just two per cent of all university teachers across the country were Black. 

A 2019 report from the Brookfield Institute says teachers have lower expectations of Black students, particularly when it comes to math. Many underrepresented minorities are less likely to have strong beliefs in their mathematical abilities. Even when Black and Hispanic students major in tech-oriented degrees, they are less likely than their White and Asian counterparts to pursue a tech career. Some suggest this results from biases in recruiting, negative perceptions of the work culture and encounters with racism on the job.

The same study also shows that “men of colour” who voluntarily left tech occupations were most likely to leave because of perceived unfairness, and nearly one quarter of underrepresented “men and women of colour” who left tech jobs experienced stereotyping at twice the rate of their White and Asian counterparts.

“It’s about creating opportunities,” said Jacques Beauvais, dean of engineering at the University of Ottawa. “There is clearly an underrepresentation of Black and Indigenous leaders in our industry. Our youth and young adults must see themselves as next-generation leaders in engineering education research. Hence the importance of investing in initiatives such as the IBET PhD project. We believe that this initiative not only makes continuing education more accessible to those who choose to apply but more importantly, it gets us closer to creating a more inclusive environment for our students to thrive in.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada