The 10-year anniversary of International Women in Engineering Day (INWED) on June 23 marked a call to action to encourage more women and girls into the profession.
In Australia, women still only account for 14 per cent of working engineers. We know the benefits of a gender balanced workforce include a wider talent pool, different perspectives, enhanced collaboration, improved staff retention and greater profitability. We also know that you can’t be what you can’t see.
This International Women in Engineering Day came at a critical juncture for the profession.
It highlighted the success of women engineers to their peers and the next generation. This helps create a better understanding of the breadth and opportunities the profession brings, shows diversity and hopefully encourages young women to consider a career as an engineer. Reversing our leaky pipeline of engineers and dwindling domestic engineering numbers relies heavily on this.
To ignore the gender imbalance will be at our nation’s peril.
As the Australian economy increasingly relies on technological transformation, we need engineers to steward the transition. We require a workforce that is diverse, representative of all the community and one with expertise in maths, data and digital systems to meet current challenges and make us future ready.
But how do we attract girls to even get to the engineering starting line?
Our Women in Engineering report shows that in too many schools STEM education tends to be limited and under supported especially for female students.
Respondents indicated there is a tendency towards providing increased attention to male students in science and maths.
Findings also revealed many girls don’t understand what an engineer does or the scope of possibilities the career can bring. They are tuning out before they get a chance to tune in.
This is in parallel to latest data from the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership which showed a 35 per cent of out of field teaching rate in mathematics.
The report states that “while out-of-field teaching may be seen as a temporary fix for teacher shortages in particular subject areas, it has long-term implications for student outcomes.”
Engineers Australia is calling for an overhaul of the current teaching system in STEM education.
We need to make advanced math more widely available in schools. An option to achieve this is to encourage mathematically qualified mid-career professionals into teaching. Senior engineers have the mathematical background and real-life examples to relate to theoretical study.
Several streams of study in science are offered in the senior years of high school, but there is little to no focus on engineering. The curriculum needs to better integrate engineering into education while delivering the curriculum requirements of mathematics and science, alongside problem solving and creativity.
Systemic initiatives are best-placed to address barriers for young women engineers but smaller-scale programs such as school talks, excursions and engineering challenges that expose students to a diverse range of engineering talent and disciplines have an important role to play.
More broadly, we know that the numbers and performance of Australian students in science, technology, engineering and maths has been falling for many years.
Statistics from the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute show student participation in intermediate and higher mathematics subjects plummeted to an all-time low in 2020. Maths is central to engineering.
A decline in participation and quality of education will affect the engineering talent pipeline, to which young women are crucial.
The profession needs collaboration across schools, universities and industry to find solutions and make a sharp U-turn to redress this.
We know students start to form opinions of career options as early as grade four, so we need to reach out to them before high school. Our research found female respondents overwhelmingly believe it is important for school students to hear from young women who are studying engineering or recent female graduates.
With International Women in Engineering Day having recently passed, our hope is that schools, universities, policy makers and industry continue to work together to make increased female participation and retention in engineering a priority.
Our future skilled workforce and the engineering profession depends on it.
By Romilly Madew, CEO, Engineers Australia