At last Sunday’s Academy Awards, Lee Unkrich, the director of the animated film Coco, concluded his acceptance speech by reminding viewers that “representation matters.” The story of a Mexican boy’s journey through the Land of the Dead, Coco features an almost all-Latino voice cast and was inspired by Mexico’s rich culture and traditions.
Another hit film, Black Panther, is notable not only for being the first Marvel movie to feature a predominantly black cast and strong African cultural elements, but also for including characters and story points that may inspire young people — particularly young girls and women of colour — to explore STEM disciplines. For instance, Shuri, Black Panther’s younger sister, is a tech prodigy who uses her intellect, inner strength and leadership skills to help her nation overcome adversity.
When people see themselves in positive onscreen role models, they may be encouraged to pursue goals that they might previously have considered out of reach, or to choose a life path they may otherwise not have considered at all. But it isn’t just movie characters that can have this effect. In a university context, a program whose faculty and student populations are gender-equal and highly diverse may be more welcoming to prospective students and professors, as well as an environment where people from all backgrounds are more likely to thrive.
It is an environment like this that Sheryl Staub-French, PEng, a UBC professor of civil engineering and APSC’s newly appointed Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Advisor, is working to establish here.
“The ultimate goal is for engineering and other professions to reflect the society we live in,” says Staub-French, who is also the director of the eng-cite program and Goldcorp Professor of Women in Engineering at UBC. “What kind of innovations are we missing out on by not having a more diverse group of people working on important questions in the STEM fields? And, more generally, how many people aren’t fulfilling their ambitions or achieving their full potential because of gendered cultural barriers?”
Over the last several years, APSC has taken significant strides forward on the diversity front. Initiatives have increased female enrolment in first-year undergraduate engineering programs by 60% between 2010 and 2014, and extraordinary female leaders never fail to emerge within UBC’s engineering community, which is more tightly knit than most. But in her new role, Staub-French intends to bring the diversity issue “more into focus as a guiding principle — to put it front and centre as a key priority in the faculty.”
Like many women, Staub-French has experienced first-hand what the absence of appropriate role models can do to a young woman trying to find her place in male-dominated educational programs and professions like engineering. Looking back at her student days at Santa Clara and Stanford and her many years in the private sector, she sees how easily a gender-imbalanced environment can limit a person’s ideas about what they are capable of, what is right for them, where they belong.
“Equity is really my life’s passion, a fundamental value that I have, and I want to continue the amazing work that’s been done at APSC and make gender parity and greater representation of minority and marginalized groups a reality here,” she says.
Staub-French’s appointment was announced on the same day that UBC revealed it would be searching for a new Senior Advisor to the Provost on Racialized Faculty. Together with other groups at UBC, the role “will support [UBC’s] institutional commitment to advancing equity and inclusion in the scholarly and leadership environment for faculty at UBC.”