The theme of 2022’s International Women’s Day, which will be celebrated 8 March, is “Break the Bias”, and as part of the campaign, all people are being urged to help forge a more equal world.
Gender bias has a real impact in communities, workplaces and other organisations — and it makes its presence felt in engineering too. In Australia, just 11.2 per cent of working engineers are women, and that figure has shifted little over the past few decades. To explore what must be done to make engineering a more equal and more inclusive environment, create spoke to six engineers, seeking their ideas about how best to Break the Bias.
Eva Rodriguez Rodriguez
Space Lead, FrontierSI
As Space Lead at not-for-profit research group FrontierSI, Eva Rodriguez Rodriguez’s job is to develop Australia’s opportunities in the space sector, but as one of Science and Technology Australia’s Superstars of STEM, she’s also tasked with developing the next generation of engineers.
Superstars of STEM seeks to change gendered assumptions about the people working with technology, and Rodriguez wants to help the public better understand the impact and importance of her work.
“One of the reasons that I joined the program is about going to schools … to explain what I do as an engineer,” she said.
“I think that it’s so important to show different career avenues to people that are looking into engineering, or who maybe are a bit afraid of technical and scientific degrees to show that there are opportunities for work that go beyond being in a lab and being by yourself. That it’s a lot about connecting people and creating impact with the technology that you are delivering.”
In Australia, the space sector is relatively new as well as highly ambitious.
“The [Australian] Space Agency has set themselves a target of tripling the size of the sector by 2030,” Rodriguez said, adding that FrontierSI is involved in supporting this aim.
“We started a program bringing in trainees from uni, which so far is being really successful, and we’re starting our own diversity and inclusion committee.”
And being involved in shaping such a rapidly growing industry from the beginning means that she is able to help the sector prioritise diversity and inclusion at a formative stage.
“I think there is a whole sentiment in the community that diversity and inclusion is important and that we have an opportunity to set strong foundations from the start,” Rodriguez said. “It’s really exciting to be part of it. It’s ever-growing, ever-changing every day.”
She believes that establishing the culture of an organisation is important, and that such efforts need to take place over the long term. But doing so has positive outcomes for everyone involved.
“It changes the dynamics of an organisation as well, because when you bring in diversity to the group and to the mix, innovation can happen, because you’ve got different ways of thinking,” she said.
“Things such as flexibility, for example — you see this a lot with working parents … so once you start to have that type of diversity, it really has ripple effects. It really allows people to be a bit more open about what their needs are, but also to create innovation.”
Director, Alinga Energy Consulting
Alinga Energy Consulting works with energy systems in remote Indigenous communities, and, as Director, Chartered engineer Ruby Heard CPEng understands the importance of seeing someone like her in a leadership position.
“When women come into engineering — into that workforce — they have bigger aspirations than the men for reaching leadership positions,” Heard said, drawing on research she had presented to a former employer.
“This study I found had tracked that over time. [Women] dropped off as they went through. And so every extra year that they did, every extra step they went higher in a company, the less and less they wanted to reach that top leadership position.”
The problem, she said, is that the conditions in many workplaces — the poor work-life balance, the skewed priorities — tend to favour particular types of men, and discourage many other talented people.
“I often get asked about how to make a workplace more inclusive for Indigenous people, and a lot of those things cross over with the exact same things that I would say is how you make a workplace more inclusive for women,” Heard said.
“It’s making things happier and more comfortable for everybody.”
That means accepting them for who they are, rather than expecting them to conform to a norm that has been created for a particular type of worker.
“I think we really need to allow women to be women, not expect them to alter their appearance and behaviours to fit into a male-dominated culture,” she said.
Heard describes bias as “sneaky”, manifesting in ways big and small. She mentions, for instance, a colleague whose supervisor assumed she would have no interest in career progression now that she had children. Or women being pressured into dressing and acting in a more masculine manner to fit a company culture.
Even air conditioning, she said, can define who’s comfortable at a company and who’s not — literally.
“In offices we have these set temperatures, which are perfect for men and what men wear, and they are not good for women,” Heard said.
“It’s blazing hot outside, so a woman dresses in a way that’s appropriate for outside, and then she’s freezing cold inside. And it’s like this very tangible and constant reminder that you are definitely in a man’s world, while you’re sitting there freezing and he’s wearing his jacket and is very comfortable.”
Managing Director, Penny Consulting
When Managing Director of Penny Consulting Yemi Penn, a mechanical engineer and entrepreneur, wants to mentor someone, she “gets straight to the heart of the matter”.
“One thing that comes up time and time again is imposter syndrome and self-worthiness,” she said.
“You’ve got potentially men who are dominating the industry, and because they’ve had significantly more experience in taking up space, it can appear that they are dominating the conversation. But they’re just doing what they’ve been raised to do and what they have been given permission to do for an eternity.
“And then you have women — who I think are already badass because they’ve decided to go into a field that they’re going to be deemed as a minority — actually still having to battle a number of internal and patriarchal things that systems or culture have suggested they needed to do.”
Addressing such issues means getting comfortable with being uncomfortable, she believes.
“If you really want to talk about equality and equity, and on the premise you are open to read whoever it is you’re mentoring, just be silent for long enough for them to start the conversation,” Penn said.
That sense of self-doubt is certainly something she’s experienced in her own career. She thinks back to a time earlier in her career: 20 years ago, when she was working on the UK’s Crossrail project.
“I know my stuff. I know that that piece of equipment on the rail track that’s about to go over the rails is not safe because we’ve already dug a hole,” she recalled
“[But] I freeze and I don’t say anything. And I don’t say anything because I still operate in a belief system that comes from my cultural background, that you do not speak to your elders in a certain way, that you do not show up, that you do not make yourself visible.”
She has grown since then, but she still remembers the moment as a way of identifying something that was bothering her at the time — and how she can respond to that. That ability to reassess, she believes, is an undervalued skill, and recognising skills like that could be useful to break existing patterns in engineering.
“I think the biggest bias we could start breaking is to assume that because someone — most of the time a woman, sometimes a man — because they have not worked in that line of work has no value to bring,” said Penn.
“We’ve got to drop the bias that you cannot bring skills from a different industry.”
Executive General Manager — Australia, GHD
Dean McIntyre, GHD’s Executive General Manager — Australia, said a lot has changed at the company since he first started there more than three decades ago.
“I joined the business coming in as one of a number of other male engineers into a very male-dominated industry and organisation,” he recalled. “Today I think GHD and the industry is actually far more diverse, but that journey that we’ve gone on today, it has demonstrated how much further we also need to go.”
Among GHD’s employees, 34 per cent are women — a figure significantly higher than the industry average, but still short of parity. Even so, McIntyre believes the company is stronger for it.
“The perspectives diverse teams bring to decision-making are driving better outcomes ultimately for us, but, even more importantly, for our clients,” he said.
Among GHD’s efforts to attract and retain women are parental leave programs, a career relaunch effort that recruits workers who have had their career interrupted, and championing breastfeeding in the workplace.
The company also has targets for female employment, which have been in place since 2014.
“I certainly do firmly believe in setting targets because I think it gives us focus,” McIntyre said.
“It helps drive the conversation, drives accountability and it gives us a better sense of our progress.”
For businesses looking to pursue gender equality, McIntyre advises first listening and resisting the temptation to react defensively.
“I would get them to be engaging within — talk to their people, listening and understanding the experiences of the people in their organisations,” he said. “Then that will actually enable and empower them to drive, to implement, the changes they need to make.”
He hopes GHD can do even better.
“I think we’re making good progress, but [there’s] still lots to do,” he said. “We can really have a large impact right through our organisation, right through industry and ultimately right through the communities we live and work in.”
Bronwyn Evans; Jane MacMaster
CEO, Engineers Australia; Chief Engineer, Engineers Australia
Jane MacMaster FIEAust CPEng, Engineers Australia’s Chief Engineer, is straightforward about the reasons engineering needs to end biases against women.
“It’s not only the right thing to do, morally and ethically, to improve gender equity in the workplace, but it’s also the sensible thing,” she said.
“There’s now a lot of evidence to back up what should be a pretty common-sense principle: that diversity of thought is incredibly important in achieving outcomes … in this complex world. And the more complex challenges that we’re working with, the more important diversity of thought is.”
It is a sentiment that Engineers Australia CEO Dr Bronwyn Evans HonFIEAust CPEng agrees with wholeheartedly.
“Because engineering in particular needs everyone, 50 per cent of our cohort should be women,” she said.
“So if we break that bias, we will unlock a flood of outstanding women to join engineering. It’s such a wonderful career that, if we break that bias and get everyone to understand that this is a career for them, we will have an amazing potential to impact national issues, global issues, and really make a difference as a profession.”
Engineers Australia is leading the way in making that difference — Evans said that 50 per cent of her direct reports are women, and the organisation’s executive team of seven includes four women — and it is encouraging other parts of the profession to come with it.
“I think we have a huge role to play, but part of our role is establishing partnerships — we’re not the only ones who have an interest in this,” MacMaster said.
“Part of our role is what we can do as a professional association, and part of our role is to understand how we can work with government, higher education and industry so that collectively and together we have more impact.”
MacMaster said Engineers Australia also has its eye on future generations.
“Understanding what are the implicit biases that play out with primary school kids and parents and teachers and school settings that tend to disincentivise girls from being interested in and engaging in maths and science.”
“And we’re looking through the continuum through secondary school, through university, and especially the factors that cause women either to choose or not choose to study engineering.”
Dr Evans believes everyone in engineering can play their part in ending these biases.
“This International Women’s Day, I think everyone should think about what are the biases they bring and how do they break them?,” she said.
“What are one or two things that each of us can do — because we’ve all got them — and how do we identify them? And then say: ‘What am I going to do tomorrow and next week to break those biases and make a difference?’”