Engineer change to bring about gender parity
Posted: 13/Mar/2018


Quality is enhanced by diversity. This is also true for engineering. Actually, I would argue that it is particularly important for engineering.

The purpose of engineering, as intrinsically a service profession, is to benefit society. Engineers do this by designing, building, operating and maintaining the artificial. To achieve this effectively, the makeup of the engineering workforce must reflect the society it seeks to serve.

This is not the case at present, nor has it ever been. Our technologies are designed largely by men, for men.

For example, when the car industry was developing in the early part of the 20th century, there were two options for the power plant: electric or petrol.

The electric engine was more efficient for short trips, the petrol engine for long trips. Women wanted cars to assist with domestic duties. Men wanted weekend drives in the country. At that time, most middle-class families could afford only one car, so they had to make a choice, and that is why we ended up with petrol engines.

Now to the magnitude of the problem.

I recently reviewed the books in my personal library. There are only two books that are written (actually co-written) by women and they are both on engineering education. I do not have a single technical book on my shelves that was written by a woman.

The absolute number of domestic Australian female engineering bachelors graduates has increased during the past decade by 32 per cent. However, the number of male graduates has increased by 34 per cent.

In other words the number of male graduates is increasing faster than the number of female graduates. Thus the proportion of female domestic engineering graduates has declined during the past decade, although there is significant variation between universities. In Australia, a little more than 14 per cent of engineering graduates are female.

Now, we are not alone in this — it is a problem that is particularly prevalent in the Anglophone world.

Our numbers in Australia are essentially similar to those in New Zealand, Britain, Canada or the US. However, equality is possible. For example, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology enrols 500 brilliant male students and 500 brilliant female students each year.

Contrary to common belief, the problem does not lie in the pipeline of prospective students.

A recent report has shown that Year 12 participation in Australia in the intermediate mathematics subject is about 20 per cent for boys and about 18 per cent for girls. This suggests that the pipeline for girls into engineering is not too dissimilar to that for boys, yet girls do not go on to choose engineering at the same rate.

Other reports show similar trends.

The problem is also neither one of success nor retention.

The aggre­gated data for Australian engineering schools shows that women have a higher success rate, a higher institutional retention rate and a higher engineering retention rate than men for commencing students and continuing students.

The impact of better female outcomes is that there is a greater proportion of female graduates than there are enrolling students.

While these somewhat depressing numbers indicate that we have a problem in engineering, we have a problem in only some disciplines of engineering. It is common that female enrolments very much depend on the subdiscipline.

Thus female enrolments in chemical engineering and environmental engineering typically exceed 40 per cent and enrolments in biomedical engineering approach and sometimes can exceed 50 per cent.

In contrast, female enrolments in civil and electrical engineering are typically at the average, while mechanical and computer engineering are well below the average.

The problem is therefore not recruiting female students into engineering generally but recruiting women into certain disciplines of engineering.

Some of the reasons for these substantial differences by discipline may be the curriculum, the pedagogy, the lack of role models and the lack of other women in the cohort.

We also have to change the way we sell engineering to prospective students. We typically encourage students who are good at maths and science to do engineering, as if that is sufficient reason. To encourage girls, we use photographs of women in pink hard hats. Seriously?

What we need to say, to girls and to boys, is that engineers change the world and have interesting careers. If you want to have an impact on the big issues of our time, such as food security, energy security or water security, then do engineering. Ability in maths and science is just the prerequisite, not the reason.

The engineering profession knows it has a long way to go. We lag behind law and medicine, perhaps by 30 years. But if those professions can change and achieve parity, then so can we. The good news is that the engineering profession is very much aware of the problem and is committed to doing something about it.

Major gender equity programs have been instituted by both our professional bodies, the Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering and Engineers Australia; the firms that are major employees of engineers, such as Rio Tinto, GHD and Arup; and industry associations including the Australian Power Institute and the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association.

We know there is a long way to go and we also know there is no single silver bullet we can fire that will bring about the transformation we want.

Cultural change is never easy. This change will require many simultaneous actions and a sustained, co-ordinated effort by many people.

And here at the University of Melbourne, the Melbourne School of Engineering is committed to change and committed to leading the change.

Graham Shaffer is dean of the Melbourne School of Engineering at the University of Melbourne.