July 8, 2024

Schulich professor asks engineering profession to ‘give peace a chance’

Laleh Behjat makes passionate plea after receiving Engineers Canada award for her support of women in engineering
Laleh Behjat Engineers Canada Award
Laleh Behjat accepts the 2024 Award for the Support of Women in the Engineering Profession by Engineers Canada. Engineers Canada

Dr. Laleh Behjat, PhD, has vivid memories of studying algebra and Newtonian physics by candlelight while bombs rained down around her childhood home in Iran.

She immigrated to Canada in 1997, joining the University of Calgary in 2002 as a professor in what is now the Department of Electrical and Software Engineering at the Schulich School of Engineering.

Behjat was later named the NSERC Chair for Women in Science in Engineering (Prairies), advocating for the removal of systematic barriers for women and gender-diverse people.

She then developed the WISE Planet leadership training program and has received numerous recognitions and awards, including the 2024 Award for the Support of Women in the Engineering Profession by Engineers Canada.

As Behjat walked on stage to accept her award on May 23 in Winnipeg, Man., she says she was overcome by the feeling that she needed to speak up once again.

“My teen years were overshadowed by a brutal war,” Behjat said in her speech. “It was hard to imagine that, one day, I would join the profession tasked with building the power generators, schools, concert venues and hospitals that were being destroyed.”

It was an emotional address from Behjat, who says it was important to shine a light on the impacts of war around the world.

Be the change you want to see

Whether it’s creating new programs, hosting ongoing events like Women in Engineering Day or fundraising to send women students to conferences and workshops, Behjat has made it her life’s work seeking inclusion.

Remembering what it was like trying to get into the profession as a young woman, she hopes to see women and gender-diverse individuals get more opportunities than they did previously.

While Behjat said she was honoured by the Engineers Canada award, she said she doesn’t do it for the recognition.

“This award recognizes the work my colleagues, students and I have been doing over the last two decades to raise the profile of women in engineering,” Behjat said in her address. “I am very proud of our work, as it means we will bring diverse perspectives on how our world should be made.”

A lot more needs to be done by the engineering profession to make a bigger change in the world, she said.

Pledge for a peaceful world

Not one to shy away from talking about difficult topics like war and violence, Behjat wants to use her platforms to drive her message home.

She said it’s critical to have these conversations now in order to take action: “As engineers, we pledge to put public health and safety at the forefront of all we do. We are taught to consider the ethical issues of our work.”

However, the professor says the very nature of what they do can sometimes go against that pledge.

“We pride ourselves on making machines faster and more efficient, but we forget about those who are killed by our efficient guns, drones and bombs,” Behjat said.

She asked leaders of the engineering profession to introduce a pledge for current and future engineers: to not participate in manufacturing weapons and to “give peace a chance.”

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