Growing up in a family of only daughters and attending an all-girls school run by nuns, Civil Engineering Professor Dr. Loretta Li never thought to differentiate activities between genders. A rarity in 1950s Hong Kong, her father emphasized the importance of education for girls, supporting his daughters’ academic aspirations despite bewilderment from extended family and friends. Professor Li has carried her father’s positive attitude forward, forging a professional career in engineering at a time when there were few women in the field. Last week, Dr. Li was able to share her experiences in Engineering with young women aspiring to enter STEM fields at the inaugural Young WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) Networking and Women’s Empowerment Event.
Young WISE is a UBC-based student-run organization seeking to help young women from high-school through post-secondary launch successful careers in STEM. They have implemented a variety of initiatives, such as a tutor mentoring program for young girls passionate about science and technology, and the Innovation Challenge, an interactive evening hosted in partnership with the Rick Hansen Foundation, UBC Patient and Community Voices, and the Neil Squire Society, where students worked to solve an access challenge for people with disabilities. For the Networking and Women’s Empowerment Event, they gathered female professionals from a variety of fields to talk about their career paths with high school students from around the Lower Mainland. Presenters included UBC faculty from Chemistry, Computer Science, Dentistry, Forestry, Public Health, and Civil Engineering.
As a civil engineer, Dr. Li worked as a junior structural engineer, a bridge engineer and then a project engineer, but her insatiable curiosity inevitably led her back to academia, where she has studied geotechnical engineering, geo-environmental engineering and soil science. During her upbringing she was surrounded by environments that celebrated girls’ abilities, but when she entered the workforce she was the first woman in two of the engineering firms where she was employed, and experienced the uphill battle against gender bias faced by many women in STEM industries. At the Young WISE event, Dr. Li shared the message that if “I can do it, you can do it!” encouraging participants to cultivate confidence and a positive attitude to help them pursue their futures. “History is history, and we need to look forward.”