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Q&A with Vanessa Raponi, A Champion in Promoting Diversity in Engineering

McMaster University hosts the Conference on Diversity in Engineering (CDE) for the first time from November 10 to 13, 2017.

The national event for engineering students promotes discussions on the topic of diversity in the engineering field, introduces discussion, and generates ideas to improve diversity in engineering education.

In anticipation of the event, Vanessa Raponi, Materials Engineering and Management student, advisor of the CDE Organizing Committee and host of three sessions during the event, talks about what to look forward to at CDE; her recent experience speaking at the international Gender Summit; and how her student advocacy group, McMaster EngiQueers, has evolved into a national not-for-profit corporation.

What is EngiQueers?

EngiQueers (EQ) is a network of LGBTQ+ people and their allies who host events focusing on social connection, advocacy and professional development across Canada. Our ultimate goal is to improve the state of diversity and inclusion in engineering in Canada. We have a very intersectional focus, as we believe we can't truly improve diversity without fundamentally accepting all humans as who they are.

How and why did EQ come to be?

The concept of LGBTQ+ spaces within engineering did not explicitly start at McMaster, but EngiQueers began at Mac. A handful of redsuits attended the 2013 Toronto Pride Parade to watch, and were stunned to see Waterloo and UofT Engineering marching with over 50 people each in the parade. We made the goal then to have McMaster Engineering march in the parade the following year, and decided the best way to do so was to create the McMaster EngiQueers organization.  

How has EQ evolved?

With the initial goal of marching in the parade, and making space for LGBTQ+ engineering connections, EQ has grown to also focus on professional development skills, and advocating and educating others about inclusivity in STEM. On the professional side, we host panels, bring companies in, and team up with NSBE and WiE to host "Diversity in Engineering Night" on an annual basis. On the advocacy side, we deliver training sessions to various bodies (Welcome Week reps, fraternities, etc.) and we host our annual Valentine's Campaign to showcase our community integration, and to raise money for charities. After EQ began attending conferences in 2015, other schools came to us as a resource for recommendations on how to start, and in 2016, EngiQueers Canada was officially started.  

You recently spoke about EngiQueers at the Gender Summit in Montreal. Can you tell us about that experience? What was the response like?

EngiQueers Canada is now a certified Canadian not-for-profit corporation with 31 chapters in 9 provinces. As Founder & President, I was invited by Engineers Canada to speak at the opening plenary at the international Gender Summit hosted by NSERC in Montreal this year. This plenary centered around LGBTQ+ voices and research. To speak to an audience of 675 international researchers, professionals and industry representatives about the story of EngiQueers was truly an honour. The response was overwhelming - my Twitter blew up with positive reactions. A man who self-identified as "very homophobic" thanked me for my courage, and for helping to recognize his own flaws, and I was even offered an interview at an engineering firm!  

What was it like meeting the Minister of Science, Kirsty Duncan at the Gender Summit?

Meeting the Minister of Science was an honour! She was one of the members of the opening keynote discussion, and shares my passion for intersectionality. Unfortunately, she was unable to attend the panel I spoke on, but I was very inspired by her comments, specifically, "Impossible is nothing, it's just a dare" and "We cannot afford to leave talent on the sidelines"; two sentiments I wholeheartedly agree with.  

Can you tell us about your involvement in CDE 2017, and the sessions you will be leading this weekend? 

I've had the honour and privilege of advising the incredible CDE Organizing Committee for the last 2 years, and I am so excited to unveil what the team has tirelessly put together this weekend. Our conference focuses on the theme of "Breaking the Status Quo" and has a strongly intersectional focus - covering topics including mental wellness, LGBTQ+ perspectives, women of colour, and social sustainability. I personally am hosting 3 sessions; (1) an EngiQueers Canada meetup, discussing community integration and intersectionality, (2) co-hosted with Dani Lake, a session on facilitating culture change in engineering student communities and (3) co-hosted with Mark Abbott of the Engineering Change Lab; an interactive workshop on the intersection of ones personal and professional identities. 

What is your big idea for improving diversity in engineering?

I'm currently working alongside my mentor and previous boss Erica Lee Garcia on the Diversity Initiative of the Engineering Change Lab. We're creating a "playbook" of best practices and action-items directly from state-of-the-art academic research, and working with companies and institutions to enhance and add to their current practices. If I had a magical wand, I would use it to change the mentality of every decision maker to incorporate all of this diversity thinking and application. But a realistic goal, would be to get as many industry leaders as possible to start delivering inclusivity trainings to their executive council, incorporate best practices, and ultimately set the stage for progress over the coming years.  

Learn more about CDE 2017.