Less than 15% of engineering students are female, we need action now

Less than 15% of engineering students are female, we need action now

Engineering is considered one of the fastest growing occupations in Australia, but less than 15 per cent of students studying in the field are women, a report by the Engineering for Australia Taskforce has found.

One of the major findings of the report – which was funded by a group of Australian universities and Australian Government’s Women in STEM Ambassador –  is that engineering is still very much viewed as a male dominated industry. Social conditioning around the message begins in very early childhood, it found.

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Monash Professor Deborah Corrigan and Dr Kathleen Aitkens were commissioned by the taskforce – set up in 2019 by the Deans of Engineering at Monash University, the Australian National University and the University of New South Wales. Professor Corrigan says a whole new “inclusive” approach needs to be taken from very early childhood in order to to encourage diversity in engineering. They also note the need to show the wide range of opportunities available.

“This is definitely the case when looking for solutions around sustainability and environment – which are a huge part of engineering and an area where women and diversity could make a big difference,” Professor Corrigan told Women’s Agenda.

The report explores the factors which affect girls’ participation in STEM and engineering and examined 115 international peer-reviewed research articles.

It suggested three points of action that need to be implemented in order to encourage women to the sector: the first is to create an inclusive vision of STEM and engineering, the second is to work with the education sector to make STEM more engaging and socially relevant in schools, and the third is to evaluate the impact of the STEM programs that currently exist and how they are working.

Professor Corrigan says a new overall, inclusive view of engineering is needed – that includes women and other areas of diversity, such as migrants.  These views need a holistic approach, from both communities, parents, educators and the engineering profession itself. If we “keep presenting the same story on engineering”, nothing will change, she says.

“This conditioning starts early, and what we find is that girls who lose confidence tend to develop an anxiety around STEM and then won’t go near it,” she says. “Boys don’t tend to have the same lack of self-confidence and remain curious.”

The message of creating an inclusive framework around engineering and the wide variety of jobs in the field in a message she has taken to Women in STEM Ambassador, Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith.

Professor Harvey-Smith agrees that more women need to be involved in engineering. She says less than 10 per cent of engineers in Australia are women. The lack of women in the industry not only means women are “missing out on designing the future, but it also means that engineering challenges are being tackled from a narrow set of perspectives”.

“By diversifying our engineering workforce, we will strengthen Australia’s economy and strengthen our ability to face the global challenges presented by a changing climate, food and water scarcity and globalisation.”

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