Engineering not just boys club.
Posted: 04/Apr/2018


 Sarah Hayes 

Of Australia’s working engineers, around just 13 per cent are female. It’s a fact Sarah Hayes knows all too well. She is one of them, and nearly didn’t enter the field herself.
“I was hung up on this idea that I wasn’t good at technical drawing. I had a very narrow concept of what it means to be an engineer,” she says.
Despite Hayes’s excellence in maths, science and analytical thinking, she found she needed others to put the pieces together and suggest engineering as a possible career path.
She believes she’s not alone among women in nearly bypassing engineering as a career.
“Things I’ve read suggest women will only consider a career in engineering if they are the very top of their school or class in maths, physics and other sciences. When women get As or A pluses, they start thinking, ‘Ok, maybe I’d be okay at this.’ For boys in the same position, engineering seems to pop up in their thought processes all the way down to the Cs,” she says.
Hayes recently landed her first graduate role in transport planning at global professional services firm Arup.
“Transport planning is a mix of engineering and urban planning. I’m lucky enough to have my foot in both camps,” she says.
Hayes works on big infrastructure projects, usually for government clients.
“My day might involve meetings with stakeholders about their input into a project, doing analysis on a data set we’ve received, or data visualisation work to communicate findings at a community meeting,” she says.
Hayes enjoys the diversity, but has been surprised by one element of her nascent engineering career.
“It’s quite creative. I thought it would be much more formulaic, but you are given problems and can solve them however you like,” she says.
At Hayes’s alma mater, the University of New South Wales, there’s a real push to boost the number of women in the engineering field.
Sarah Coull is the manager of UNSW’s Women in Engineering program, and says the past decade in particular has seen the industry start trying more actively to reduce its gender imbalance.
Although the Women in Engineering program plays an active role once female engineering students are on campus (there are events, professional development, networking and mentoring opportunities), the push begins well before that. Outreach begins with girls in Year 7.
“We look at the whole life cycle, from school aged students to our students and alumni. Each feed into the other,” Coull says.
It seems to be paying off. Since the program’s launch in 2014, enrolments for female first year engineering students are at an all time high of 27 per cent, and the number of women starting engineering degrees at UNSW has increased by 45 per cent.
Coull says females considering engineering need to keep up their commitment to STEM subjects during high school, and have an open mind about what the field involves.
“We need to make sure women have really positive female role models to look up to, and break down those typical stereotypes of engineers,” she says.
Coull says women are often interested in engineering roles that have a social or environmental impact.
“We run a humanitarian engineering project as part of our Women in Engineering Camp … that’s been a particularly inspiring and engaging activity. It’s certainly not all building sites and high vis vests,” she says.
Back at Arup, the people and community impacts of her own role is not lost on Hayes.
“There’s a whole push to get people out of their cars and get cities happening on the streets again. Using your maths, science, technology and digital skills to do that is hugely exciting,” she says.

By: Sue White
Indepent