How International Women’s Day has helped change the way we look at diversity in engineering

Engineers Australia has once again hosted International Women’s Day events around Australia in an effort to share stories and celebrate the successes of women in engineering.
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How International Women’s Day has helped change the way we look at diversity in engineering

Over the past five years, thousands of attendees have been gathering with like-minded professionals to hear talks from celebrities and some of Australia’s leading diverse voices in engineering.

Our March events, including the newly added Perth date, all sold out, proving to be one of Engineers Australia’s must-attend forums.

This year, attendees heard keynote speaker Turia Pitt speak on how engineering played a huge part in her road to recovery. 

In 2011, Turia was competing in a 100 km outback ultra-marathon when she became trapped by a grass fire in Western Australia’s remote Kimberley region.

“While I’m no longer a practising Mining Engineer, the skills and the mindset that engineering requires are ones that transfer into my everyday life,” Turia recently wrote in a blog post.

“In fact, it even helped me during my recovery from the fire.”

During her long road to recovery, Turia says it was an engineering mindset that helped her overcome challenges.

“See, engineers are really good at looking at problems objectively, and, as hard as it was, that’s how I dealt with my recovery,” Turia said. 

“I knew that if I did my physio sessions and I wore my compression mask and I went to the gym and I read books by other people who had overcome adversity, then I would be better off. It wasn’t rocket science.”

With the engineering profession now facing some of its biggest workforce and labour challenges, forums like International Women’s Day are driving important conversations about how diversity can solve problems.


A troublesome future

In February 2019, Engineers Australia released its latest report on university student and graduate numbers in engineering.

While the report shows Australian students commencing their engineering degrees has been falling more than four per cent on average every year since 2013, women engineering students are faring a little better.

The proportion of women commencing engineering courses has slowly increased over the years. In 2017, there was a higher than average proportion of women students commencing their engineering degrees representing a 2 per cent rise on previous years.

Female engineering graduates are also reported to be getting paid more compared to their male counterparts. 

Beyond graduate positions, women are emerging as being more resilient in the workplace compared to men. While job participation rates for men had fallen in every jurisdiction.

While these are optimistic gains towards overcoming the diversity problem, they still remain small wins.

Australian women completing their engineering degrees fell from a peak of 1,824 in 2014 to 1,774 in 2017. And the difference between male and female graduates (9,629 v 1,774 in 2017) continues to be a stark reminder there’s a long way to go. 

To add to the problem, there is no clear reason why there are fewer young women taking up engineering degrees.

Many point the finger at biased job ads favouring more masculine language that exclude women. Others says it’s a lack of engagement early on for school-aged students.

Much discussion has been focused on prevailing old stereotypes and attitudes within the industry that continue to perpetuate outdated thinking that turn women off the profession.

Even overlooked topics, such as appropriate work wear for women in STEM fields, has been discussed as reasons for failing to retain and attract women.

As the debate rages on, organisations like Engineers Australia continue to raise the questions that may one day solve some of the most complex problems the industry faces.


Hope in conversation and action

Innovative programs and opportunities have blazed trails for more gender equality and diversity within the engineering workplace in Australia.

In 2017, Engineers Australia CEO Peter McIntyre was inducted as a member of the Male Champions of Change STEM group (MCC).

Peter stands alongside other high-profile members of the MCC such as Chief Scientist Alan Finkel, Qantas CEO Alan Joyce and Chief of the Defence Force General Angus Campbell.

National Manager of Professional Diversity and STEM at Engineers Australia Justine Romanis works as the implementation lead for EA with Peter and the MCC STEM group.

Justine says MCC launched a resource to assist the leaders in some of Australia’s most high-profile organisations to address gender equality.

“The resource acts as a discussion guide for leaders on using the disruption we are experiencing now, to focus on building a gender equal workforce of the future,” Justine says.

“We need to use the discussions and planning in our rapidly changing work environment to ensure we don’t replicate (or indeed exacerbate) the issues of today into the workforce of tomorrow.”

The resource, titled ‘A Gender Equal Future of Work’, was launched formally by the MCC in November 2018, and will be the basis of a CEO Roundtable series hosted by Peter in May 2019.

Engineers Australia is not the only organisation attempting to find solutions. Shining examples in the corporate world include companies such as AECOM, which have been making active decisions to be more inclusive for years.

In 2015, AECOM was named by Engineers Australia as the most outstanding company in gender diversity, implementing ‘no start, no stop’ time contracts for working parents, and continues to strive for a 50/50 gender split to their graduate programs.

Other engineering companies such as GHD and construction firm Mirvac have also been awarded for their diversity initiatives to attract and retain more women.

While these initiatives continue to push for equality, staff from the various organisations, groups and programs continue to spend an afternoon (or a very early breakfast) sharing their stories, successes, and ideas at International Women’s Day forums around Australia.

It’s events like these that continue to keep up the momentum to challenge out-dated modes of thinking in engineering and encourage organisations and governments to do more.