Women in engineering don’t seek recognition for their work as often as they should. Three women talk about how we might remedy this.
In the July 2016 issue of create, we ran a feature on Australia’s most innovative engineers. Out of the 60 engineers on the list, just 10 were women. This figure was low but comparable to the 12 per cent of the engineering workforce who are women. However, the number of women in engineering who nominated to be on the list was much lower than the proportion in the profession. We spoke to some prominent women engineers about why this might be so.
President of the South Australian Division of Engineers Australia Niki Robinson said it is a recognised problem in the profession but not because there is a lack of women doing innovative work.
“They’re great at solving problems and thinking outside of the box, in terms of trying to find the best solution,” Robinson said.
“But that’s not always seen by themselves as being innovative. They just think they’re just doing their job and solving a problem. That’s what they do and it’s not considered to be innovation.”
Civil engineer and Founding Director of education technology company Machinam Dr Jillian Kenny said the problem isn’t restricted to engineers and points to the Australia Day Honours, where women made up just 30 per cent of nominees for the 2016 Australia Day Honours List, and seven of the 31 categories had no female nominees.
She says the reasons for this are varied and complex. As an example, she describes how a close friend was recently told that she was the recipient of a well-known, prestigious award in Australia.
“This was incredibly exciting news for her, yet she waited an entire week before telling her manager,” Kenny said.
“Why? Because in her words, she already feels different as a woman in engineering and she didn’t want to risk highlighting that difference, or to risk being seen as not delivering. Which is ironic given the award!”
Another issue she highlighted is the language used in entry forms, which is often written to appeal to men more than women. This also comes up in the wording of job advertisements where men tend to respond strongly to masculine traits like achievement, challenge, independent, and others that are commonly used within male-dominated job descriptions; women have been found to react more positively to communal traits such as altruism, interpersonal skills, teamwork, etc.
“A study published by the American Psychological Association found that masculine wording used in job ads ‘signals to women that they do not fit or belong in that job’, unintentionally repelling the candidates we are trying as a profession so hard to attract,” she said.
“The same principle applies to calls for award nominations, tender bids and any other application processes. When looking at the call for nominations, one of my female colleagues responded by saying, ‘It sounds so ego-based. What about recognising engineers who are making a difference in our world?’.”
Professor Veena Sahajwalla from the Centre for Sustainable Materials and Research Technology at UNSW was included in our list of innovative engineers for her work on smart recycling. She leads a program at UNSW called Science 50:50, which aims to inspire more young women in engineering and science.
“The program has two elements to it. One is all about creating networking and mentoring opportunities for young women,” she said.
“The other is about getting them immersed in real-world opportunities, such as a simple tour to go and see Cochlear facilities, for instance. It is a good example of how when young women go out there and find themselves immersed in these places, even for an hour or two, it’s something that they will remember for the rest of their lives.”
Sahajwalla believes that the mentoring aspect of the program is relevant to women at all stages of their careers and might be crucial to encouraging women in engineering to seek greater recognition.
“You never stop needing a mentor at various stages in life, you just need different types of advice and support,” she said.
“Mentors can be quite proactive in giving advice. I do that with a lot of younger academics here on campus, and they’re from completely different fields. They’ll come and just have a chat every so often when they want to apply for a promotion, and if they have a bit of doubt, perhaps all they really needed was someone to go, ‘Yeah, you should be going for it’.”
Robinson also suggests that women sometimes need encouragement from other women, and in male-dominated organisations that can be difficult to find.
“In South Australia, there’s actually a group called Women in Innovation,” she said.
“They are passionate about innovation in technology and they are focused on the elevation and celebration of South Australia’s innovative women. They have basically provided a platform for women to connect and share ideas; to get that confidence in a safe place.”
She said they also have an annual Women in Innovation award, which showcases the innovations and successes of local women; and if people are successful there, they might consider nominating for national awards.
Kenny suggested that not only should women mentors be supportive of their mentees, but proactive.
“As individuals we can thoughtfully and proactively consider the people around us and encourage them to apply for awards they deserve,” she said.
“Further to nudging those deserving people around us to nominate, we should also tell them why they should apply. We can often see others’ achievements with far more clarity than we see our own. Having the opportunity to talk through a nomination with a mentor allows for new insight into our strengths.”