NSERC Chair for
Women in Science & Engineering

Laleh Behjat

Dr. Laleh Behjat

The only way I know how to negotiate being a woman is to raise awareness.

Professor, Electrical and Computer Engineering
University of Calgary

Dr. Laleh Behjat is a professor at the University of Calgary in Alberta Canada. Her research mainly focuses on applying mathematical techniques for solving physical design problems. She has won several awards for her work on the development of software tools for computer engineering including ISPD 2014 Placement Contest 1st place, ISPD 2015 Placement Contest 2nd place and Schulich School of Engineering Research Award. Her research team is currently supervising 9 graduate and 2 undergraduate students.

In addition, Dr. Behjat has a passion for increasing the status of women in Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Dr. Behjat was the recipient of 2015 Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta (APEGA) Women in Engineering Champion Award, and Association of Computing Machinery, Special Interest Group in Design Automation Service Award in 2014.

As an academic, what is your favourite part of your job?

Interaction with students, especially graduate students, and then learning from their success. I have been a big proponent of improving graduate studies. I have proposed and taught 4 new graduate courses with great success. Two of the courses are in professional development for graduate students. I also really like my research area, which is a combination of engineering, mathematics and computer science. I like to work in an area that draws from different subjects and I like to work with people from different research areas. I think the work gets so much better when we have more diversity.

What are you researching and what excites you about it?

My work is in the area of electronic design automation. Basically, I make software tools that automate the design of computer chips with the objective of making them faster, smaller and less power-hungry. This area is very fast paced, and research areas that were hot one year ago can be totally obsolete now. In some ways, working in this area means that I need to be very creative and draw knowledge from other areas to always be working on the state-of-the-art. The creativity is a necessity and that is what excites me.

What types of professions can students graduating in your field enter?

Students will work in high-tech industries. For example, some of my former students are working at Apple and Microsoft and other big companies in this area. Some also have been working in start-ups.

Is your workplace male-dominated? If so, how do you negotiate being a woman in a male-dominated workplace and/or field?

Yes, it is very male dominated. I am not sure what you mean by negotiating. I cannot change being a woman, so I try to make a difference in any way I can. I have started and am still working on several initiatives for recruiting more women into engineering. These have covered a big span of K to 12. For example, recently, I received some funding from Google to teach coding to female students in high-schools and a few years ago, I got money from Imperial Oil to conduct research on the perceptions of engineering for the students in the K to 6 grades.

At the university level, I have been working with both female undergrad and graduate students. I have organised trips to Grace Hopper Conference for Women in Computing for 6 years in a row. I have conducted several workshops for women in engineering and am currently planning a female leadership circle for graduate students in engineering and science. I have also worked at the professional level to increase the participation of women in engineering. I served as a member of Women in APEGA group, chair for IEEE Women in Engineering Southern Alberta Section and have held several workshops and panels for women in engineering.

At the same time, I am aware that my salary is less than the salary of my male colleagues in the same rank who also in some cases do not have the same level of activities. I have seen many times that the work I do related to women in engineering is not considered important and the success of the research I do, gets attributed to my male collaborators whose contributions to the research were much less than mine. So, the only way I know how to negotiate being a woman is to raise awareness, and bring up my profile as well as that of other women. But I am very aware that I am not as successful as I would like to be on a personal level.

How do you foster and encourage diversity in your workplace?

I have given a description of some of my work in the question above. Here I summarise: 1- start the difficult conversation that there is implicit bias and we should do something about it. 2- Advocate for the women I know. I consciously try to nominate women for high-profile roles or awards. 3- Provide opportunities for female students 4- Advocate for increased participation to the general public.

What kinds of systemic support could institutions provide to help encourage girls and women to pursue careers in science and engineering?

We need a lot more role models for young women so that they can see themselves and their future. However, our institutions have still systematic problems that make barriers for the women who are in the field. For example, when looking at hiring, there is no concerted effort to recruit women.

At the same time, research has shown are less likely to apply for jobs (research shows that men on average apply for jobs when they qualify for 60% of the requirements for the job, but women think they should not apply unless they are 100% qualified). - In hiring committees, there is usually a token woman ("to keep balance" as one of my colleagues put it). However, there is little work to educate the committee members about implicit bias and how it impacts their decisions (My faculty has started to do this recently). - After taking maternity leave, there are generally no policies about keeping the courses or help with keeping the research going during the leave.

One of the things that my faculty has started to do is to provide funding for hiring post-doctoral fellows during maternity leaves. There are no pay adjustments once the maternity leaves are over. So a few years after taking a leave, the females who generally take the leave are earning considerably less than their male counterparts. There is also no recognition of the extra work put into doing this. So as a female faculty, one is expected to achieve more to be considered equal, get paid less and also be an advocate. Institutions also need to support the department heads and deans who do implement these policies

What advice would you give to girls or young women who are interested in careers in science or engineering?

Go for it! you will be great at it.

I can give a tour of our faculty and show you all the cool stuff we do and how we can help the community and the environment. Engineers and scientists have made it possible for all people to live better and more meaningful lives.

As a professional in science or engineering, who are your role models and mentors?

I don't have specific people who are my mentors or role models. There are many people who partially fill that position such as Maria Klawe, Mary-Jane Irwin whom I have looked up to during my career and people like Grace Hopper and Anita Borge whose stories have inspired me. I try to learn from many different people.