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.

  • They're too busy pursuing women's studies and other related fields.

  • Well, if you got rid of all that pesky mathematics and science … that would probably attract the "right-brained" away from their art degrees? Civil engineers should really spend more time on aesthetic interpretation rather than Young's modulus!

  • Of course, I forgot, they should be at home doing the ironing. Thank you Tony for reminding me….

  • Yes the lack of women in engineering is an issue, however I recently collated experiences from some of Cundall's female engineers and I was surprised how positive it was. Especially from the young engineers coming into the industry.

  • Where are all the Australian's in Engineering???

    As an engineering recruiter I am seriously concerned about the future and how few Australian Engineering graduates there are each year. The majority of job seekers are immigrants that have been granted PR and have no local experience and no knowledge of Australian Engineering and Construction Codes.

  • Opening up a field to new approaches and ways of thinking can only be beneficial. Those who will do anything to maintain the status quo of their profession must ask themselves why they are not open to questioning or suggestions for change. If you can't rationally defend your way of doing things as the best way without falling back on prejudice or tradition, then there is very little worth defending. Thank you for a refreshing article, Professor Hood.

  • Hi David
    Support your point fully; we need in Australia a far better gender balance across our engineering profession.
    I have been lecturing Engineering Students in China for the past several years and I am amazed that truly around 50% of the class are female. They have got that right.
    Best regards, Bill

  • Philosophy of engineering. Quite a bit has been written on that. See my book for some, also Engineering Practice in a Global Context. Recently some books of collected chapters have emerged, but with only tenuous links to practice. Can send references if you write by email.

    • Thanks James. Yes please send me any references to the philosophy of engineering. I've read lots on the history of engineering – travelogues mostly glorifying the left brained outcomes……. Thomas BRINSMEAD got close a few years ago. I guess my concern is that we tend to separate engineering from nature. We use and abuse nature for our selfish, nefarious purposes. I vividly recall the then Dean of Engineering in my first year stating how lucky we were because after graduation we "would be taming nature for the good of MANkind. We need to better link earth systems engineering into current curricula.

  • I have two daughters currently at high school that want to pursue engineering careers and expect there are plenty more coming through in this generation. We just have remove any obstacles and then get out of way and watch them go.

  • One of the simplest obstacles is parents telling daughters engineering is for boys,therefore crushing any inclination towards the field at a young age, or children of any gender just not being aware of what an engineer does and what a great career it can be. Well done Ian for encouraging your daughters.

    • You're correct Jessica. Girls need to be encouraged to do things with dad like common household repairs and other projects which are often considered dad's responsibility. There is also a problem in early childhood education where most teachers are women come from a non-science background. They are mostly very good teachers but are less likely to encourage science based activities.

  • The problem starts in preschool and continues through primary school. Most early childhood teachers are women with little or no knowledge or interest in science. Hence an interest in science and mathematics is not engendered in children at an early age and girls are certainly not encouraged to study science. 20+ years ago I was involved in a project through the Sciencecentre on family science. The then principal of the Teachers college was well aware of the problem. All of the early childhood teachers were very competent and dedicated but you didn't need to have a science background to go into primary teaching and many that I spoke to were not confident to explain science. The problem then moves on to just family stereo typing. A few years ago I was doing some casual tutoring at UQ and I met a couple of girls studying Mechanical engineering. One came from a farming background and was used to being around machines, the other was a city girl who told me her dad wouldn't let her near the lawnmower. I guess I'm saying that even in the home it is often boys help dad and girls help mum. Girls need to be encouraged to help service the car, build the deck or replace the tap washers etc.

    • I totally agree with you, David, in regard to engaging girls from childhood to help out dad with repairs around the house. I grew up with 3 older brothers ( dad died too early) who treated me as an equal and got me to help them with car repairs, painting, bicycle maintenance and a little carpentry. It wasn't a lot, but it was enough to stimulate my interest in engineering. I could see it was not only fun, but very practical.

      I am pretty sure that this early childhood and teenage experience launched me into my engineering career ( civil – hydraulics).

      I do, however take offence to the stereotyping in David Hood's article. I am not as right brained or people friendly as would be presumed for a woman. This assumption that women are better with people is still haunting me in my career and I am often pressured into areas that require strong people skills but which I simply do not have to meet the stereotype assumed.

      The reality is, we need people in engineering who are equally right brained and left brained, not some lopsided monster with just one string to their bow.

      I have improved my people skills over the years
      Please, stop stereotyping. This is every human's worst enemy

  • I’m a bit concerned about the emphasis on women being able to provide more empathy in engineering, and the perception that women who use their left-brain, systematising skills are acting like men – in fact I think that kind of gender essentialism is actually the problem, not the solution.
    There are lots of situations where women use their left-brain skills, but only some situations when it’s culturally acceptable for them to do so. For example, even basic sewing involves taking 2D pieces and assembling them into 3D structures, taking careful account of material properties in the process. Keen sewers move onto pattern drafting, which is starting from a 3D shape full of complex curves and working out how to cover it using only flat 2D pieces, which can then be digitised, sent around the world and recreated anywhere. Pretty technical, and yet men in online sewing communities are often corralled into a ‘men can saw too!’ corner, in a way distressingly reminiscent of the special-interest groups for women in engineering. Designing a space suit is essentially left-brained and competitive, while designing a corset is essentially right-brained and empathetic? I don’t think so…

    • Kathryn, I think my second point is more relevant to your context. Currently engineering is largely driven by a virtuosity paradigm where many outcomes are glorified by left brained, testosterone influenced people, be they men or women. It is this philosophy that has to change if we are to attract more women and more right brained thinking into the engineering profession. And, it must change if we are to solve the huge challenges that are facing society today.

  • I'll agree that girls need to be encouraged to pursue their own natural curiousity from a young age. I was an only child and my mum made me go and help dad with repair so that I learnt to do everything on my own.
    But when it came to picking uni courses, my mum wanted me to do law based purely on liking the law show 'Ally McBeal' and she actively tried to disuade me from engineering as she perceived it as 'hard' and full of boys who would give me a hard time. All I can say is I'm glad I didn't listen to her.

  • Engineering, like society,is best served by reflecting a diversity of views. Diversity is multi layered but clearly Engineering can not have a diversity of views if over 50% of the population is so poorly represented. We should all do what we can to encourage and support greater involvement of women in Engineering.

  • I believe there is a limited understanding of what engineers actually do. The entire course of my life shifted when I found out that engineering wasn't about engines, instead it was a way of using applied knowledge to design and create.

    The marketing of engineering as a profession seems to have recognised this, and I have seen a definite industry shift and effort to better promote the reality of engineering to the next generation. That said, I think my high school could make a small but significant step by moving the engineering class out of the metalwork rooms (just a thought).

  • "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 totally agree with that, if a female engineer in male dominated engineering areas like structural engineering want to be SEEN as an engineer at all she should forget about womanhood.. This biased view needs to be changed..

  • I am never in favour of arguments that say "there should be more women in this field". In my view, if society can truly stop associating gender to types of work, then everyone will feel encouraged to pursue whatever field they wish and win jobs purely based on their merit rather than on trying to achieve a gender proportion target.

  • In the 21st century, working to solve societies contemporary problems, there could be no truer statement than, "We need new thinking to create new solutions." As a youth entering the field of engineering I hope we can continue to work towards eradicating this bias and diversify engineering!