Why should we care how many women there are in engineering? There are a few ways to think about this. Firstly, society can benefit. Fifty percent of the population is female, but women make up only about 15% of the people designing the technology and infrastructure that makes our lifestyle possible.
Plus, many of our best and brightest – just the kind of people who we want to be applying their minds to such challenges – are female. In fact, more than 50% of the top-ranked NSW school leavers in 2014 were women, but they made up less than 20% of the students enrolling in engineering courses.
Secondly, industry can benefit from more women in engineering. By now it is well established that diversity improves business outcomes. Diverse teams are more creative in their problem solving, more productive and more profitable. In the case of engineering, the most obvious area for an improvement in diversity is gender.
Thirdly, individual women can benefit from a career in engineering. For a woman who enjoys and has an aptitude for maths and science, engineering offers a career in which she can use these skills to solve real-world problems. Engineering can be challenging, rewarding, creative and collaborative. Furthermore, engineering is well-paid and has one of the smallest gender pay gaps for graduates.
What can we do to encourage more women into engineering?
Right now, the vast majority of girls (in fact, probably the majority of people in general) do not know what engineering is or what engineers do. Bright girls with an aptitude for maths and science are directed towards a career in a “caring” profession, like medicine, almost by default; engineering is rarely presented as a career option.
Parents and teachers have their own misconceptions about science and engineering and might discourage girls from pursuing science subjects in school, because they don’t know where these subjects can lead. Because of all this, the first step is really to educate girls, their parents and their teachers about what engineering is.
Many girls express the desire to help people or to “make a difference” when choosing a career. In engineering, they have the opportunity to do this. Engineering does not begin and end with hard hats, machines or digging holes. Engineering encompasses a huge range of occupations and applications, from devising new mechanisms of drug delivery in chronically ill patients, to designing emergency response systems in aircraft, to delivering clean drinking water to a community or finding ways to make solar technology cheaper and more efficient.
Many engineering graduates go on to become consultants and project managers, where they use their problem-solving skills in a business setting. The majority of engineering jobs are very different from the stereotypical images of engineers.
The next step is to ensure that engineering classrooms and workplaces are inclusive and supportive of women. Any profession that has been dominated by one subset of the population for a long time will tend to have cultural quirks that alienate others, often quite unintentionally. It’s important, then, for companies that employ engineers to look at their business and cultural practices critically to identify what these issues might be for them, and for their female employees.
Many large companies are doing this, and taking it seriously. Having recognised that diversity benefits their business, and that strategies put in place for a minority often benefit everyone, employers are starting to embrace this challenge.
The last step is to get everyone working together. Improving one stage of the pipeline is pointless if the stages on either side do not match it. We don’t want to work hard to have lots of women enrol in engineering degrees, only to quit once they graduate. Similarly, putting targets in place at the industry level will have little impact if there are not enough graduating women to recruit.
By schools, universities and employers all working towards making STEM careers attractive to women, we can begin to make real progress towards gender equity in science, technology and engineering. Possibly the best way for this to happen is for everyone in the field of engineering to turn around and look at who is following them – then offer them their hand.
About the author
Alex Bannigan is the Women in Engineering Manager for UNSW Engineering