A recent summer camp at UNSW sought to establish an early pipeline of women in engineering by encouraging girls to pursue STEM careers.
The University of New South Wales is aiming to boost the enrolment of women in engineering courses through a summer camp for more than 100 year 11 and 12 students. The camp was held as part of the university’s goal of 30 per cent female enrolments in engineering by 2020.
The students recently spent five days at UNSW visiting major companies such as Transport for NSW, the Royal Australian Navy, IAG’s Firemark Labs and Tooheys Brewery, as well as start-ups.
Sarah Coull, Women in Engineering manager of UNSW Engineering, said opportunities like this help to open up career possibilities that young girls may never have realised existed.
“There are traditional barriers, including the stereotypical engineer profile, such as the male engineer who works on buildings and train tunnels,” she said.
“But these are being broken down by industry and education, and girls are becoming more exposed to the incredible breadth of roles and fields within engineering.”
Coull also cited other traditional barriers that can stem from male-biased language that is used unconsciously by schools.
“So it is incredibly helpful to have more visible female role models to break down such barriers to entry,” she said.
UNSW said more than 65 per cent of girls who previously attended the camp in year 12 went on to enrol in engineering at UNSW.
Challenges for girls
There can be numerous challenges for girls taking up STEM subjects at school.
A study by Accenture in February 2017 revealed stereotypes in the United Kingdom about STEM subjects are holding girls back. It found 32 per cent of young people think that boys choose STEM subjects more than girls because they match ‘male’ careers, and that girls are more likely to view STEM subjects as ‘academic’ or ‘boring’.
“Our research reinforces how preconceived notions of what a STEM career entails may be derailing the interest of young people, especially girls,” said Paul Doherty, chief technology and innovation officer at Accenture.
One student to attend the 2018 camp was 17-year-old Mia Dobell, who is currently in year 12 at St Luke’s Grammar School in Dee Why, Sydney.
“I actually was strongly encouraged to study STEM subjects by a number of people, because I think they realised that my strengths lie within those subjects and that I’d enjoy them – even before I realised it,” Dobell said.
She perceives the STEM industry as a welcoming one, with a lot more work being done around the participation of women in the industry and targets in regard to the number of women in the workplace and at universities.
And while only about 13 per cent of engineers in Australia are female, Dobell does not find that figure a deterrent, with the camp helping to reinforce her positive image of the industry.
“Visiting companies made me realise how welcoming the industry is, not simply to the female workers who we talked to, but to all its members,” Dobell said.
“It is really encouraging to see the action that is being taken to encourage more women to undertake STEM studies.”
Dobell said meeting women in engineering was also beneficial, as she had not previously come into contact with them before the camp.
She said she now has a clearer idea of what engineers do and who they are.
“It was really beneficial to gain an understanding of what each of these women did as a career. Interacting with women in the industry was not only educational in regard to the options out there, but it was also really encouraging hearing their stories,” she said.
“It really helps to make your dreams tangible and identify how you can achieve them.”
Dobell believes that more young girls would be interested in engineering if they were introduced to it a lot earlier than at the end of high school.
She said providing young girls with engineering role models is important “because you can’t be what you can’t see”.
“I know that schools are beginning to raise awareness for women in STEM careers, but I think it’s important to continue this and to get speakers that work in the industry to continue to promote these careers to young girls.”
Dobell’s advice to other young girls who might be considering taking up STEM subjects was to just go for it.
“They teach you such an important skill set, of which the significance is growing increasingly important in our modern world,” she said.
“Even if you are unsure or just considering it, just study it; you have nothing to lose and so many skills and so much knowledge to gain from studying it.”