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Smashing engineering’s gender imbalance

More than 100 girls from around the country will spent the week in Sydney at the University of New South Wales’s annual Women in Engineering Summer Camp, showing them what the booming (but still male-dominated) profession has to offer.

“Demand from industry completely outstrips supply, and that demand is not slowing – in fact, it has doubled in the past decade,” said Mark Hoffman, Dean of Engineering at UNSW. “And the average starting salary for engineering graduates is higher for women than for men. Name another profession where that’s the case.”

The girls spent five days at UNSW, exploring engineering as a career and visiting major companies like Transport for NSW, the Royal Australian Navy, IAG’s Firemark Labs and Tooheys brewery, as well as start-ups, to see the engineering profession in action. Almost a third of the campers are from regional New South Wales or interstate, including eight from Victoria, three from the ACT and even one from Malaysia.

Among them are:

  • Alanna Coleman (Year 12), from Hunter Valley Grammar, an independent co-educational, non-denominational school in Maitland. She has volunteered in Zimbabwe and Vietnam, is a rower, plays volleyball and wants to study Biomechanical Engineering.
  • Gabriella Daaboul (Year 12), from Catherine McAuley Westmead, a Catholic secondary school for girls. She placed first in Chemistry as and second in Physics, took part in the Australian Mathematics Competition annual Cochlear Autumn School of Engineering.
  • Andria Zanotto (Year 11), from Griffith High School. Named the school’s Sportswoman of the Year’ three years in a row, she was vice-captain of the NSW Country under 13 girls’ side that won the national championships, and led the school STEM team that made runner-up in the NSW finals Aeronautical Velocity Challenge in Wollongong, designing bottle rockets and propeller-powered planes. She’s also won awards are a number of debating championships.

They will network with 80 real-life female engineers from industry who have volunteered their time, and collaborate in teams on week-long design projects that make them see how their school maths, science and technology skills can be applied to the real world. In the past, over 65 per cent of girls who attended the camp in Year 12 have gone on to enrol in engineering at UNSW.

“There may be young women in high school right now who could become some of the best engineers ever born – but if they don’t know about the profession and what it offers, they’ll never realise that potential,” said Sarah Coull, Manager of the Women in Engineering program at UNSW’s Faculty of Engineering. “If we succeed, it’s a win for them as individuals, it’s a win for us as a society and it’s a win for the engineering profession.”

Every year for the past decade, an average of 18,000 new engineering positions needed to be filled in Australia, but only 7,600 students now graduate with bachelor-level engineering degrees from Australian universities. Almost 20% of engineering graduates come from UNSW in Sydney, which has by far the country’s biggest engineering faculty.

“There are just not enough engineering graduates to meet domestic demand, and demand is high,” said Kimberly Burdett, the faculty’s Education Manager. The proportion of Australian engineering graduates who are employed full-time within three years of completing their degrees is 91.6 per cent, according to the 2017 Graduate Outcomes Survey.

Hoffman said that appealing to women isn’t just about boosting the overall number of engineers, but because engineering itself benefits from diversity.

“In a knowledge-driven economy, the best innovation comes from diverse teams who bring together different perspectives,” he said. “This isn’t just about plugging the chronic skills gap – it’s also a social good to bring diversity to our technical workforce, which will help stimulate more innovation. We can’t win at the innovation game if half of our potential engineers are not taking part in the race.”

Hoffman, who became UNSW’s Dean of Engineering in 2015, has made boosting the number of women in engineering a priority. Within the faculty, his goal is to raise female representation among students, staff and researchers to 30 per cent by 2020. Currently, 22 per cent of UNSW engineering students are female (versus the Australian average of 17 per cent at universities). Only about 13 per cent of working engineers in Australia are female, a ratio that has been growing slowly for decades.

Coull manages several UNSW initiatives to boost female participation in engineering, from multiple events held on campus for female students as young as 14, to school visits, annual awards which highlight successful women engineers and mentorship of students at high school.

The faculty has recently boosted the number of its Women in Engineering scholarships to 42, with a total value of more than $420,000 annually, partly funded by UNSW and industry partners such as the Commonwealth Bank, Arup, WSP, Dolby, Kimberly-Clark, KPMG and Transurban, as well as private benefactors.


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