Elizabeth Croft is a mechanical engineer in the field of robotics at the University of British Columbia. Courtesy of Elizabeth Croft.

Elizabeth Croft is a professor of mechanical engineering and the senior associate dean in the Faculty of Applied Sciences at the University of British Columbia (UBC). Over her tenure as chair, the percentage of women in the first-year engineering class at UBC increased from twenty to thirty per cent, which is ten per cent higher than the national average. She is also director of the Collaborative Advanced Robotics and Intelligent Systems Lab at UBC. She was recently appointed dean of the Faculty of Engineering at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia and will commence this role in January 2018. Her pioneering research concentrates on robotic systems, in particular the interaction of robots and humans for manufacturing assembly and homecare applications. Elizabeth is also a former NSERC Chair for Women in Science and Engineering and is a fellow of Engineers Canada, the Canadian Academy of Engineering, and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

Was it expected that you would go to university? My grandfather, who had very little education, was passionate about education because he had lived through the depression. He’d say, “The only thing they can’t take away from you is your education.” That was a family motto. There was never any doubt that we were going to university.

What factors influenced your decision to pursue a career in engineering? When I was a kid my parents would bring home broken medical equipment and I would try to fix it. I fixed the centrifuge at least six times. I would take things apart and try to figure out how they worked. I also spent time on the farm with my grandfather. It was wonderful. My grandfather ripped stuff apart and left it open for a while. He showed me how to fix farm fences. He showed me how to install brake pads on a car. The shed was always full of bits and pieces that you could play with. My brothers were hugely influential — I was always tagging along — especially my second brother. I wanted to be like him. He is a geological engineer and runs his own consulting firm. His decision had a lot to do with me entering engineering. It made it a safer place to go.

Phil Hill, a professor in mechanical science [at UBC], basically recruited me into mechanical engineering. He was my parent’s friend. He gave me the drawings for the Boeing 767. He was working on the engines. I was probably only thirteen or fourteen. He brought them to church one day and said, “Here, you should look at these.” I was like, “Wow, is that what you guys do?” I remember spreading them out and pouring over them trying to get a sense of them. I also have this distinct memory of asking him about going to university. He said, “You should do engineering and you should go into mechanical engineering.” I said, “Okay, sounds good. Where should I go?”

Can you talk about your experiences as a young woman academic? The first year is really, really hard. Maria Klawe told me that I would survive. She was very, very important to me through just a few interactions; her saying, “It will be okay.” I came as a young faculty member with a baby. I could not come to the department meetings at six o’clock p.m. I had to go feed a baby, to the point of pain. I just told them, “If you have department meetings at six o’clock on Mondays, I’m not coming ever.” I had to challenge the workplace norms, which was really quite scary.

What circumstances led to your appointment as an NSERC Chair for Women in Science and Engineering? In 2003, I had just come back from maternity leave. I was approached by a group of women students who really wanted to do something for women in engineering. Eventually they decided upon a mentoring program and we found some soft funding. I phoned fifteen friends and we started the mentoring program. We had thirty students. We did it as a pilot program, and it was super successful. Then I had this line of young men outside of my office one day coming to see me because they wanted into the program. I was able to approach the associate dean at the time and say, “There’s a demand. It’s good for women students, and men students want it as well. We should do this.” After multiple years of pushing, we got that going. Then Anne Condon, a professor in computer science, was the NSERC chair. From chatting with her, we got some seed funding to help out our women in engineering group — to get them interested in doing things together. I had a meeting with them where I asked, “What do you want to do? What is your vision?” They said, “We want to go camping together.” In 2007, with one of the students who was working in my lab, we did something called “Building Communities,” which is now the Creating Connections conference series that runs every two years in B.C. We put on a weekend retreat, which was about trying to build the community of women in engineering.

Doing these different things helped. As I was moving forward with this work, some of my colleagues said, “We really want you to be the next NSERC Chair. Would you do this?” My friend, Karen Savage, convinced me I should do it. I figured that if I did, at least I’d get the funding to support this work, I would not always be doing it off the corner of my desk and I could make a real, sustainable impact. I worked with our development office and put together a proposal and talked to different companies and asked for some funding to support the chair. It was hard at the time. We had hoped that one of our sponsors would come through and support the whole chair, but it turned out they only wanted to do a smaller portion. I ended up with thirteen sponsors. That ultimately turned out really, really well because it expanded the reach that I had in the community.

What did you focus on during your tenure as CWSE? The previous focus of the NSERC Chair, at least in B.C., had been academic, which is great. We still do that all the way from K-12 through undergraduates, graduates, and then faculty. But I really cared about the women that were in industry. You could see these women leaving. They were getting burned out by the workplace climate and underlying biases endemic in a male-dominated engineering culture. They would go off into other careers and be great, but we had lost them from engineering. I felt that was such a shame and that we really needed to do something about that. The other thing that I felt was really important is that instead of just trying to launch WWEST [Westcoast Women in Engineering, Science, and Technology], I said, “No. What I’m going to do is I’m going to find every organization that is doing this work and I’m going to support them. I’m going to find every organization that I can in B.C., talk to them, and bring them together around this issue, and I’m going to give them money and give them training so they are sustainable.” There were already these groups — let’s bring them together and partner. Let’s see how we can work together to have more impact. I took a chunk of chair funding and turned it into grants. It was a relatively small amount of money, but it was the seed funding that they could then use to say to a company or a university, “Look, we got this money from WWEST, will you match it?” It gave them that leverage. Helping organizations doing outreach be strategic and develop a sustainability plan was really important. We were bringing people in and bringing them forward so they could be leaders. I’m super happy that we have developed the next generation of leaders.

How can we increase the participation of women in STEM? I don’t think we can take the foot off the pedal. I think there’s real danger in doing that. In 1990, there was a big push, and we went from almost nowhere to up to twenty-one per cent women [in engineering]. Everybody was excited. Then the foot came off the pedal, and in the early 2000s, the numbers just dropped off. We got down to sixteen per cent. There continues to be a lot of resistance and implicit bias that we have to overcome. There are cultural barriers. We have to get to the point where it is, “Of course, women are going into engineering. Of course women are going to be computer scientists. That’s normal. Women do that.”

One of the things that is good that I really love is that the participation of women in STEM is now seen as a value proposition. That’s the big change that we’ve seen. It’s gone from a social justice issue, a “we need to let the girls play, we need to let them in,” to, “we are, as an economic unit, as a country, are missing out in the value of half of our population if we don’t include them in this really important part of our economy. We have invested in girls from K-12. We have paid for their education. If we’re not going to benefit from those brains being in science and engineering, we have lost the value of that investment.” It’s saying, “These are smart people, and we’re not utilizing them.”

What are the largest impediments for increasing the participation of women in engineering? Our largest impediment for increasing the numbers is marketing and communications. We need to continue to show engineering as attractive. Then next it’s moms and dads and teachers. Get the kids engaged. Teachers are huge role models for girls. We need to encourage teachers to become much more comfortable with technology and engineering subjects. The more we have engaged teachers, the more we’ll see the girls engaged, too. In terms of retention, it is all about workplace culture. If you want people to stay in the workplace, you have to change the conversation and culture. How can we make it comfortable for everybody to be there? Women do better if they’re encouraged. You’re going to have to encourage them, give them that reassurance that they are capable in this environment because they are still the minority. They are still getting signals that they don’t belong, so we still have to do the work to overcome those signals to make sure that they persist.

How do you define innovation? Innovation is central to the creative design process. The process of creatively adapting, applying, and optimizing engineering principles and engineering science to a problem to solve it for a user need. Innovation is applying science to the creative process.

What qualities does an innovator possess? Creativity, a deep understanding of user needs, and the ability to be interdisciplinary are important.

What are you most proud of in your career? I am most proud of my amazing students and people that I have had an opportunity to work with and help succeed. I’m proud of my work, I’m proud of the NSERC chair, but the most lasting impact that we can have is to help other people. If there’s any way that I have seen somebody be successful, that makes me feel really, really happy.

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