Who is an engineer? An opinion for International Women in Engineering Day.

June 23, 2020

Ask five people you know to name a famous engineer who has helped shape the world we know today. You might get answers such as Nikola Tesla, James Watt and Elon Musk. There is no doubt that these men, as engineers, have had a significant impact on society.

But what about Margaret E. Knight, Edith Clarke, Marie Van Brittan Brown and Mary Anderson. Why are these engineers not household names like their male counter parts? Perhaps the answer to this is in the perpetuating stereotype society has of engineers: introverted, inherent genius, solo worker, male.  But innovative, influential and successful engineers are much more diverse then this damaging stereotype.

Today, on International Women in Engineering Day we celebrate the long contribution women have had, and will continue to have, as engineers.  Engineers such as Margaret E. Knight, who invented the flat-bottomed paper bag and the machine to make them, Edith Clarke who invented the Clarke calculator, Marie Van Brittan Brown who invented closed-circuit television security and Mary Anderson who invented windscreen wipers. Women have always belonged in the world of engineering, and these women, and many more should be known by everyone.  Yet they remain ignorantly or perhaps wilfully hidden from the history of great engineers.

It has been 100 years since a group of female engineers came together and founded Women’s Engineering Society, the first such society of its type. During the intervening years, Australia has seen the first female engineering graduate, the formation of Engineers Australia (1919) and the first female CEO of this peak governing body for our industry (Dr Bronwyn Evans, 2019). However, disappointingly little has changed in the overall engineering profession, which remains stubbornly male dominated with worryingly low female participation.

In Australia in 2020, less than 13% of degree qualified engineers are female. There has been little movement on this figure in more than a decade. We have seen an increase in young women selecting to study tertiary level engineering with 18% of students commencing study in 2018 being female. This is certainly a step in the right direction but remains significantly short of the numbers needed to fill the engineering workforce crisis that awaits the industry. It also fails to capture the systematic problems facing women in engineering.

Women who do graduate with university level engineering degrees report entering a workplace that is both isolating and hostile. They are often underemployed or sidelined into non-technical positions, limiting their opportunities to progress or have influence or impact on the society they serve. Female engineers find this isolation and hostility very demotivating and these are the key reasons behind the high attrition of women from the profession.

Almost half of female engineers quit the profession or never even enter the field. One in four leave after age 30, compared to only one in 10 male engineers. Our female engineering students today are technically competent yet remain inadequately prepared for the challenging, often gender biased workplace that awaits them. They do not receive the training needed to cope with issues such as gender bias, harassment, implicit bias and difficult conversations. Furthermore, they lack support networks that can help alleviate their perceived sense of isolation, and female mentors who can act as role models to help them navigate problems and remain in the engineering workplace.

Given these issues, it is little wonder that the profession continues to fight an image problem that it is not suitable, or indeed friendly towards women.

As engineers, we must look at our profession and ask ourselves why young girls and women continue to remain disengaged with engineering. As members of society, we need to challenge the ongoing stereotypes of engineers and do a better job of showing, supporting and promoting diversity in engineering.  We know girls have the same skill and aptitude for maths and sciences required of engineers up to early high school. But after this point something changes. The aptitude and skill remain; however, many of these young girls are increasingly selecting not to study maths, advanced maths and physics in senior high school. The system is broken. We are failing our talented girls and young women.

So how do we solve the ongoing problem of a lack of women in engineering in Australia? There is no one easy answer to this, and it will not change without a united effort from parents, schools, universities, industry and governments. Young girls need to be encouraged to consider engineering as a career, and women in engineering to stay in the field. We need to change the mindset of society, so they applaud not discourage these girls and women. We will only reach a more gender representative, inclusive and diverse engineering workforce with strategies, policies, and programs focused on both the near- and long-term goals.

Three such programs focused on promoting, supporting and mentoring young women in their career as future engineers are YoWIE, WIE UNSW and TWEET. YoWIE is an engineering outreach program and community run by UNSW Canberra for high school girls. Its goal is to change how we talk engineering with young women using a simple philosophy of “I see therefore I do”. It provides the support, mentors and role models so important to shaping the career ambitions and success of our young girls and is proven to increase girls’ confidence in engineering. The WIE (Women in Engineering) UNSW Program aims to inspire girls to pursue engineering degrees and careers, support women studying engineering at UNSW, and celebrate the successes of female engineering graduates. It runs activities both on and off campus to such as the Girls in Engineering club and offers scholarships for female engineering students. TWEET is a university led student organisation aimed at connecting, mentoring, and supporting women in electrical engineering and telecommunications at UNSW. It also conducts outreach with girls in high schools to raise awareness about the options that careers in engineering can provide.

It is with programs such as these, together with parents, industries, governments and schools that we can start to make significant change, not only in the number of women studying engineering but the number remaining in the field after graduation.

Engineers #ShapeTheWorld. If we want our world to reflect our society then it is imperative that we support, encourage and promote more women in engineering. Their voices at the engineering design table have been silent too long. It is time their voices are heard.

About the authors:

Dr Bianca Capra is a senior lecturer in aerospace engineering at UNSW Canberra’s School of Engineering and Information Technology, co-chair of YoWIE and Chair of the Women in Fluid Mechanics subcommittee of the Australasian Fluid Mechanics Society.

Follow Bianca
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/bianca-capra/
Twitter: @DrBiancaCapra

Dr Beena Ahmed is a senior lecture in signal processing at UNSW Sydney’s School of Electrical Engineering & Telecommunications and mentor of TWEET UNSW.

Follow Beena
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/beena-ahmed

Bianca and Beena are both Science and Technology Australia’s
Superstars of STEM.

Main Photo credit – UNSW Canberra


TAGS Dr Beena Ahmed Dr Bianca Capra International Women in Engineering Day University of New South Wales Women in Engineering Women in STEM

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