Eleanor Loudon, CEO, Engineers Without Borders Australia, says it’s time to shake things up to encourage more diversity.
Female participation across engineering in Australia is dire, and it hasn’t seen a sustained improvement despite a range of interventions.
It’s an industry-wide and, indeed, global problem. Each year, 15 to 20 per cent of undergraduates in engineering faculties across Australia are females. But just 12 per cent of these students actually make it into the workforce.
How do we increase women’s participation? And then how do we retain them in the sector? At Engineers Without Borders Australia (EWB), it’s a wrong we’ve, uniquely, never needed to right.
Across the multitude of programs at EWB — from school outreach, to first-year uni education challenges and latter-year student immersions, as well as our humanitarian engineering research program — our female participation rate is at 41 per cent.
To understand this anomaly relative to the sector, we recently completed research, with support from the Origin Foundation, to explore what the industry can learn, and what initiatives can be adopted to redress the gender imbalance.
The diverse community at EWB is one that has thrived organically, which is what makes the research findings so authentic and interesting.
So how do we evolve, equitise and enlighten the world of E? What did we discover? A key conclusion was that involving women in humanitarian and social projects was a significant magnet in attracting them to engineering.
At a rudimentary level, engineering as a profession has always had an image problem. There’s an engineering stereotype — of an industry littered with men in yellow hard hats, building bridges, driven by profit. It is a profession that is so much more.
Our research found that the values of humanitarian engineering — applying engineering competencies and principles with humanitarian values, for positive social and environmental outcomes — deeply engages a diverse workforce.
This values alignment leads to social connections and to being a part of a community of like-minded people who share a vision to create change.
Practical experience in communities was also critical in helping students to discover and establish their ‘engineering identity’.
These experiences challenge that oversimplified perception of what an engineer does, and motivates these students to determine a career path that fits them.
This clear direction engenders confidence and transitions rookie students into mentors and leaders, becoming the role models they never had, and in the process empowering themselves and those who are influenced by them, and retaining their skills in the sector.
While delivering some really meaningful findings, the report also spotlights just how the student engagement work we do impacts the diversity of the entire sector — a wonderful byproduct of EWB’s core intent.
This article originally appeared as “The right values” in the March 2019 edition of create magazine.
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