Understanding the demographics
The engineering sector continues to suffer from a lack of gender diversity, with approximately 12% of the engineering labour force in Australia identifying as female. Even at UTS we can count on one hand the number of female engineering academics at Associate Professor or Professor level – for some reason the situation is not so bad in the IT side of the Faculty.
Changing the narrative
The prevailing narrative about engineers still continues to be either that they are nerds with no social skills or beer-swilling yobbos (with no social skills).
The UTS Women in Engineering program runs effective programs of outreach to female school students as well as the Lucy Mentoring program which supports female students currently enrolled in engineering or IT. These programs align with the ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ philosophy by highlighting the participation and achievements of women in engineering. As an individual academic it is my responsibility to challenge any comments in class that suggest gendered assumptions about engineering and to ensure the curriculum is more gender neutral. The presence of female students and staff is also extremely important on open days so that prospective students (and usually more importantly parents of prospective students) can ask questions one-on-one and face-to-face. As part of my recent National Teaching and Learning Fellowship I developed some engineering student personas which I use in class for workshops on student learning and behaviour. This group includes three cis-gendered female students and one transgender student. Researchers have found that women, minorities and even white male students leave their engineering studies because they don’t think they fit with the mainstream culture of the discipline. Providing a range of engineering personas with which students can identify should dissipate some of the stereotype threat with beneficial effects on retention and diversity in the profession.
Change is happening, slowly
This year my first year civil engineering class had 20% female students so it is pleasing to see that the proportion is increasing. Biomedical engineering has an even higher percentage of female students. Unfortunately we still hear stories from our female students of subcontractors, developers or members of the public responding to them by saying “No, I want to talk to the engineer”.
The engineering profession benefits from a more diverse workforce – multiple studies have shown that diversity in project groups is correlated with robust solutions. Changing the working environment so that engineering accommodates women will also make it better for men – especially those men who do not fit the prevailing stereotypes.
Recently we published a journal article related to students’ experiences of gendered cultures in engineering:
Sally A. Male, Anne Gardner, Eugenia Figueroa & Dawn Bennett (2018) Investigation of students’ experiences of gendered cultures in engineering workplaces, European Journal of Engineering Education, 43:3, 360-377, DOI: 10.1080/03043797.2017.1397604
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