As long as I can remember, engineers have been wondering why we have so few women commencing engineering programs, and/or staying in professional engineering practice.

I am still deeply concerned that we have yet to seriously address the reasons why the proportion of women amongst our engineering ranks is so low – currently less than 12 per cent across all fields of practice.

We all know engineering is missing out on a significant proportion of society’s intelligence, and empathy, by inadvertently excluding women from the profession. There also seems to be general acceptance that women would bring a greater focus on the softer skills associated with a better understanding of human nature, our connectedness with the natural environment, and a sustainability focused perspective to engineering undertakings. So why is it that we still struggle to lift the numbers of women in engineering?

As Sourceable contributor Mark Howe touched on in an article last month, we need to enlist more right-brained people into engineering, and encourage more right-brained thinking in engineering education.

Lifting the percentage of women in engineering would go a long way toward meeting this need, but not if we focus solely on attracting left-brain influenced women to engineering.  Many of the women who are currently succeeding in engineering, and who we tend to exemplify, are there because they were already left-brain inclined, or because they have adjusted in order to succeed in a left-brained, male-dominated and outcome-glorified professional culture.

I suspect that we have probably fixed – for the most part – many of the discriminatory features in our physical workplace. Our focus should now turn to two more or less related factors.

The first is a subtle and unconscious bias that many of us are not even aware that we hold. This bias that leads us to unconsciously treat women as somehow of lower value than men in society is a result of long-embedded societal standards and mores that frame our lives, and through which we view our world. It is extremely difficult to cast off these cultural influences that are embedded in us through the influence of our parents, grandparents, our spiritual followings, and our schools. Without intervention, it would take generations of gradual change for us to truly accept women as different, but of absolute equal value, uncluttered by historical dogma and traditions. But as a profession, engineers need to set examples for society and intervene, through education and enlightened (right-brained) thinking to overcome these insidious prejudices.

The second factor that works against women entering the engineering team relates to the philosophy of engineering (and I’m yet to see a rigorous, well thought through philosophy of engineering). Engineering has evolved under the influence of man. It has been nurtured over the past few centuries by men, and therefore it naturally has a strong testosterone shape and feel about it. When I open this sort of discussion, I am often challenged by engineers who argue that “engineering is simply engineering, it’s governed by physical laws, and you can’t change it.” True, but its manifestations are strongly based in virtuosity – we are wrapped up in the wonderment of our own achievements, from its early birthing in military might, to today’s desire to make things that are taller, longer, bigger, fly higher, faster, more complex, and as a result often more violent (certainly upon our natural environment, and often on society).

A market-based analogy that may assist our thinking on attracting more women could follow these lines:  If a company’s product is not selling well to women, does the company increase the advertising budget aimed at shifting women’s desires, thereby “flogging” that same product to the female market, or does it hold focus groups with women who aren’t buying the product to find out what is wrong, and then as an outcome, change the product they are offering?

Should we not review engineering the same way? We are after all “selling a product” – a professional career in engineering.

I don’t want to appear to be agreeing that engineering is part of science, but I would urge a read of Margaret Wertheim’s book Pythagoras’ Trousers. Wertheim, a scientist, relates the struggle women have had throughout the ages to gain any credibility – let alone acceptance – in the fields of science or technology, and addresses some of these philosophic issues. I believe we need to take a long hard look at just what engineering really is and think about change through the creation of an inclusive philosophical basis for engineering.

It’s interesting that environmental engineering is attracting and holding much higher numbers of women than other fields of engineering practice (and contributing to a recent small growth in total numbers of women across all fields of engineering). Is that because women see environmental engineering as an avenue for repairing the damage we have inflicted upon nature, and for regenerating the earth’s ecosystem services?

I also shudder at universities that use promotional phrases and imagery such as “extreme engineering” to attract school age students, glorifying motor sports, and other extreme technical endeavours. I’m certainly not against stretching our vision of the role of engineering, but that stretched vision must now focus on overcoming the enormous sustainability crises, including anthropogenic global warming and consequent climate change that face society. Today, engineering seems more a servant of endless economic growth and perpetuating a “business as usual” or dare I say “bigger is better” culture that has largely got us into our current dilemmas.

We live in a world that is facing enormous challenges, and desperately needs new engineering solutions. But, as Albert Einstein famously said, “You can’t solve problems with the same mindset that created those problems.”

We need new thinking to create new solutions. Having engineering teams that are right and left-brained, are more balanced between men and women, and that are sympathetic to society’s and nature’s needs, will greatly assist in driving this new thinking that we require to ensure a long future for humans and all life on planet Earth.