As we mark International Women’s Day 2023 this month, it’s timely to call out a crisis that needs a strong and swift response.
There continues to be a lot of talk about our skills deficit but in the engineering sector we’ve lurched from shortfalls to an alarming 41 per cent increase in engineering vacancies over the past 12 months alone.
The profession has more than a skills problem, it’s in the grip of a gaping vacancies black hole compounded by COVID and border closures.
This is more shocking when examined in a context that still shows just 14 per cent of working engineers across the nation are women. This statistic has not budged much in decades.
As the academic year is well underway in universities across the country, it’s sobering to note that Australia has the dubious ranking of recording the second-lowest proportion of engineering graduates compared to other disciplines among OECD countries.
Of these graduates, only 17 per cent are women.
That number is even more alarming when we know the nation is simply not keeping up with the need for STEM skills and the serious challenges this presents in an increasingly digital interconnected world.
The Department of Education reports that the number of school students studying STEM in years 11 and 12 has flatlined at about 10 per cent or less.
It’s stating the obvious that society is made up of roughly 50 per cent females.
We must harness the engineering skills of 100 per cent of our population and not just the male half if we are to make any inroad towards meeting Australia’s urgent need for more qualified engineers.
Engineering is the biggest employer of the STEM professions and the worst performer for female participation.
Engineers Australia’s Women in Engineering report is confronting reading on that score.
Findings show the gender gap begins early and the biggest reason girls don’t choose to study engineering is that they still continue to simply not know what engineering is, and what engineers do.
Other barriers include concerns around not being good enough at maths and physics, the perception of engineering as too male-dominated, challenging or boring; and girls not feeling supported to do well in STEM subjects from as early as primary school.
If indeed they are one of the handful of women who do pursue an engineering career, the research found that they experienced the work as meaningful and impactful.
On the flip side, women also reported leaving the profession because of a lack of visibility and limited career opportunities.
This is not good enough.
It’s time to act
The profession must uniformly act to address the pay gap, parental leave and flexible work.
But more can and must be done, including setting strong targets for gender representation.
To increase visibility of the profession amongst girls and young women we also need a national and long-term response from our political leaders.
Decades ago, they galvanised to establish the Australian Institute of Sport in a serious investment and commitment to improving our medal targets off the back of headlines shaming us for our performance following the Montreal Olympics.
What about the urgent national issue of Australia needing more engineers and therefore more women in engineering in order to help address a significant chunk of our skills crisis?
We welcome Industry and Science Minister Ed Husic’s announcement of an independent expert review panel for the Pathway to Diversity in STEM Review.
This is part of the Australian Government’s commitment to boost diversity and increase the participation of women in Australia’s STEM sectors.
However, we need to move faster around engineering and ensure that all levels of government work together as a matter of urgency to address this imbalance.
Actions should include increasing Australia’s teaching capability in STEM and giving engineers a seat at the policy table to guide and guarantee that the engineering skills perspective is incorporated into decisions and planning.
Shifting the dial on diversity in engineering requires a holistic and co-ordinated approach. To ignore it will be at the nation’s peril.
Romilly Madew AO is CEO of Engineers Australia. Dr Bronwyn Evans AM is the former CEO of Engineers Austrlia and Chair of Building 4.0 CRC