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“It’s about taking inclusion further, while strongly connecting it back to the engineering profession,” says Marisa Sterling, the Faculty’s first Assistant Dean and Director of Diversity, Inclusion and Professionalism. (Photo: Liz Do)

Marisa Sterling (ChemE 9T1) was recently appointed the first Assistant Dean and Director of Diversity, Inclusion and Professionalism at U of T Engineering.

This newly created role aims to support and guide the Faculty’s efforts in ensuring that every member of the Engineering community is afforded the right to study and work in an environment free of biases based on race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship or creed, sexual diversity, age, gender and ability.

Sterling has more than 20 years of experience as a professional engineer, working and volunteering in both the private and public sectors. Most recently she served as the Assistant Dean, Inclusivity and Diversity, at York University’s Lassonde School of Engineering. She was also recently installed as president-elect of Professional Engineers Ontario (PEO) for a three-year term.

U of T Engineering News sat down with Sterling to learn more about her vision in this new position.

What are the overarching objectives of the Assistant Dean and Director of Diversity, Inclusion and Professionalism?

This role is really important, and it’s close to my heart. It shares a core value with me around building an equitable world. It also advances engineering, a profession and education that I’m so proud to be a part of.

My role is to see what we can do to improve upon, and increase, accessibility for everybody here at the Faculty – whether it’s future and current students, faculty or staff. It’s about taking inclusion further, while strongly connecting it back to the engineering profession.

Engineering has a critical role in society and I think going forward, with a lot of challenges that we face on our planet — in terms of sustainability, health, and so much more — engineering will play an even bigger role. I want to continue to see U of T Engineering flourish, and be a leading voice in diversity, equity and inclusivity, as we face these future challenges.

Tell me about the Professionalism part of your portfolio. 

The foundation of the engineering profession is that it upholds a code of ethics and is accountable to the public. Engineering work can be about doing transactional work for a client and applying one’s stamp, but it can also be about leading and innovating for the future well-being of society. Our work has an impact on others, and having equitable and inclusive leadership behaviours is one pathway to making a positive impact on others.

Within this role, I plan to work collaboratively with the Vice-Dean, First Year, faculty, staff, students, PEO and other external professional engineering organizations to further student reflection on the changing identity and public expectations of an engineer and student preparedness on ethical and equitable behaviours of licensed engineers.

What have you observed so far at the Faculty, and what are the challenges ahead for this role?

I’ve observed a very modern-thinking institution with a really engaged, supportive and excited community. During the hiring process, I had the chance to meet with some student leaders who volunteered for hours at a time to talk to me about inclusion and equity issues. They’re passionate to be part of these discussions, but at the same time, can become overwhelmed when they feel they are shouldering the responsibility.

In terms of the challenges ahead — this work is culture-change work. And as much as it can be programmatic with milestones and measures, at the end of the day, we are shifting culture. My role will be to enable students, staff and faculty to make improvements from the ground up, as well as to remove barriers in systems and process.

I always quote Peter Drucker: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” It’s hard work to shift culture, and it’s long, sustained work. Clearly, that work has already started at U of T Engineering, and so what I’m excited about is how I can help take it to the next stage.

What was your experience like studying at U of T Engineering? Did you face any biases as a female engineering student?

I was a heavily involved student. I was in Skule Nite, I joined the basketball, soccer and ice hockey intramural teams, I was on the Engineering Society and elected to Governing Council, I was involved in student clubs at ChemE, and I also played the trumpet for the Lady Godiva Memorial Bnad [sic].

At the same time, I joined a sorority at the University. I now look back and reflect on that and realize that I joined a sorority because I was looking for a connection to a network of women.

Another thing I reflect on is my senior year in high school, when I was deciding on which engineering program I would apply to. I was flipping back and forth between mechanical and chemical engineering, I just couldn’t decide.

The advice I was getting from my parents and the people in the recruiting process was, ‘put chemical engineering as your first choice.’

Part of me always wonders if there was an inherent bias — that I would have more success academically and socially in chemical engineering, where there was a higher percentage of women. For the whole four years that I was at U of T Engineering, there were no women in mechanical engineering. Zero.

That’s changed significantly since. We’ve made a lot of progress and have stellar female role models in mechanical engineering and so many other disciplines at U of T Engineering now.

What do you hope to accomplish in the next six months?

 The next six months is about continuing the momentum in this space of equity, diversity and inclusion. This is tough work, shifting culture, so I hope to do whatever I can do to support these efforts.

In particular, I am eager to help put into action the recommendations from the Eagles’ Longhouse Blueprint for Action as well as the Black Inclusion Steering Committee’s pending final report.

I believe in acting from the best available research at the time. Therefore, I’m looking forward to integrating into our strategies the results of the recent climate survey of students spearheaded by the Faculty’s Community Affairs and Gender Issues Standing Committee, along with our statistics and student experience data for equity-seeking groups.

With my dual reporting role to the Vice President, Human Resources and Equity, I plan to deepen our connections with the University’s equity officers, the University’s Office of Workplace Investigations and other Faculties across our campuses to continue to bring best practices into our engineering community.

I’m also really excited about the opportunity to link professionalism to equity work. It’s important for us, moving forward, to be able to develop new programming and teaching styles to enhance students’ professionalism so that they can carry that forward as licensed engineers.

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Marit Mitchell
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