The world is experiencing rapid growth in engineering jobs and if we don’t encourage our school girls to consider careers in STEM, engineering in particular, Australia will miss out on fifty percent of its capacity to keep up with an innovative world that is changing before our eyes.
But, most importantly, our girls will be missing out on some of the most influential job markets.
“I am not too technical”
“I am not really that good at math”
“I don’t like construction”
“I’m not physically that strong”
With just a few words, many school girls decide that a career in engineering is not for them. But, the truth is that you don’t have to be any of these things to become an engineer.
I recently read a news story about a high school-aged girl who said that she was ‘pretty good at math and physics’. However, she had no idea how these skills could translate into a career path. Her parents didn’t go to university and she hadn’t been taught about the possibilities of an engineering career at school.
My heart sank.
With a little bit of awareness, she could have been on her way to a career saving lives and transforming economies by becoming a biomedical engineer or an environmental engineer.
About halfway through high school, I knew a good deal about engineering majors, the prospects of engineering jobs and why engineering was a great choice for me.
But I realised as I write this, I come from a radically different culture where engineering is the most popular career pathway among women.
I was born and raised in Iran. For a bunch of reasons beyond the scope of this piece, many girls in Iran choose to study engineering at university – some statistics suggest up to 70 per cent of engineering students in Iran are women.
I majored in metallurgy and materials engineering at Shiraz University.
Metallurgy is considered one of the most masculine disciplines of engineering (think welding and foundry), but most of my classmates were girls.
Fast forward to Australia where I now lecture in mechanical engineering and although the numbers of women are growing, the number of female students in my class has never been even remotely close to their male counterparts.
We need to change this, and we can.
According to a recent report by Engineers Australia, the percentage of female engineers in engineering roles is much less than that of males. And yet, the same report suggests that Australia’s women engineers are on average more highly qualified than men.
There’s a great expression, if you can’t see it, you can’t be it. The low number of females in engineering makes it difficult for girls in secondary school to imagine their future selves as engineers. How are they supposed to see the invisible?
For a secondary school girl, considering engineering as a major is mainly informed by factors such as direct social influence (e.g., family members and female role models), math and science interest and proficiency, internship opportunities and high school extracurricular activities, an interest in innovation, and perhaps for more informed students, career and financial considerations. Some of these factors are inherent in the students, and some are relatively easily accessible from the web.
I believe that for girls, direct influence from others plays a key role in choosing engineering and seeing themselves as engineers. And in Australia, unlike in Iran, you may not see an engineering graduate in every family. With the support of our successful female engineers, our schools could create more awareness about the simple definition of engineering disciplines. We can teach our students – what does a climate engineer do? What does a materials engineer do? What does a biochemical engineer do? And, of course, we can teach students about the exciting potential of an engineering career. In engineering, the employment rate is well above average and the gender pay gap all but disappears in the engineering job market.
And, of course, show them that engineering can be a glamorous career.
Last year, I walked the red carpet as a L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science fellow.
Whilst much effort is being made to encourage women into engineering, it’s slow progress, so let’s also focus on making the best use of our current female graduates. You don’t have to have Einstein’s intelligence to figure out that traditional workplaces are no longer appealing or efficient.
The human interface of engineering workplaces matters as much as technical aspects, if not more in some fields. Studies suggest that female early-career engineers perceive the importance of social and altruistic traits, such as communication, ethics, and sustainability, more than their male counterparts.
In today’s modern climate, an engineering workplace that does not benefit from the mindsets and skill sets of both genders is at a loss.
Australia is home to some of the world’s highest-ranking universities in engineering disciplines. Engineering jobs are some of the best paid jobs in Australia.
Every year many female students from overseas enrol in Australian universities to benefit from all this; we must ask ourselves, why not students from a little closer to home?