A lack of understanding about what engineers do is the primary factor stopping girls from studying engineering and becoming engineers, a new study has found.

Releasing its Women in Engineering report based on a survey of 1,801 participants and in-depth interviews, Engineers Australia has revealed shocking findings.

All up, it revealed that nine in ten women who ultimately pursued degrees in non-engineering fields had not given serious thought to engineering as a career.

Among these women, more than half say that either not knowing enough about engineering or never having thought about the profession was a significant reason for their decision to not consider the profession as a career.

The survey also revealed a link between familiarity and decisions of women to study engineering.

Of those women who were not at all familiar with engineering at the time of applying to university, only 11 percent considered it as a profession either seriously or in passing.

This increases to 54 percent who were familiar with the profession.

Moreover, the lack of understanding about what engineers do was borne out during quantitative interviews.

One woman interviewed had thought in early high school that the term ‘engineer’ referred to a mechanic such as a car mechanic. She had no idea why anyone would suggest this is what she did.

Another felt that in hindsight, engineering would have been a suitable career choice.

“But I just didn’t realise what an engineer did”, she said.

A third participant described the difficulty she had in seriously considering engineering.

“[It’s] hard to picture yourself in a profession that barely exists in your mind,” the interviewee said.

“I have no idea what an engineer’s day-to-day would look like.”

The latest report comes amid ongoing recognition of the need to boost female participation to cater for the growing workforce needs of the engineering sector.

Whereas women make up 48 percent of the workforce overall, females represent only 13 percent of qualified engineers and 11 percent of the active engineering workforce.

As the nation gears up to deliver upon a record program of public infrastructure, the need to attract more women into engineering is growing.

Apart from the lack of familiarity, the report identifies several other barriers to attracting and retaining women in engineering.

These include:

  • Perceptions of the profession as being male dominated and ‘challenging’ as well as not being impactful or fulfilling.
  • Feelings of inadequate support among girls to perform well in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects.
  • Perceived lower levels of support among current students to do well compared with those studying other degrees (despite positive studying experiences overall).
  • Ongoing concerns with workplace culture an unequal opportunities among those women in the workforce (notwithstanding that most female engineers feel valued and are passionate about their work.

Speaking of the awareness issue, the report found that early intervention and education are critical.

This would target schoolchildren, parents, teachers and careers advisors.

Engineers Australia Chief Engineer Jane MacMaster says the findings represent a call to action – particularly as the new Labour Government has made commitments on women’s’ issues and skills.

“Women make up 48 percent of Australia’s workforce, yet account for just 13 percent per cent of the nation’s working engineers,” MacMaster said.

“Women are missing in action from the profession and this research tells us what we can do to change that.”

Australian Government Women in STEM Ambassador Lisa Harvey-Smith says attracting women to engineering is critical to meeting economic requirements.

“It makes no sense to ignore 51 percent of our population in the design and construction of our infrastructure and technologies,” Harvey-Smith said.

“Australia needs to seize this opportunity, with efforts needed in explaining the positive outcomes of engineering better so that more women want to train as engineers, but most crucially in improving the culture and work practices of the industry so that they want to stay.”


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