Nee Nee Ong

Organisations, government and society are gradually realising the importance of diversity – specifically gender – in producing innovative, creative and efficient teams, and that diverse teams lead to improved performance, profits and sustainable communities.

Yet we still have a long way to go. The rate of female representation in industry is low, with proportionally less females at higher levels. According to the Filling the Pool report produced by the Committee for Perth, at the current rate of change it will take 300 years before there is gender parity in the CEO position.

That is too long.

Current research highlights the ongoing concerns that there are fewer females studying STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), women are not progressing to positions of influence and there is still a pay gap discrepancy between genders.

Engineering is a profession especially lacking in female representation. The last Australian census indicated there are fewer females studying engineering-enabling subjects such as advanced maths, compared with males. The engineering labour force is only 11.2 per cent women. Women are less likely than men to have top management responsibilities and female engineers earn approximately four per cent less than their male counterparts. The Engineers Australia Survey of Working Environment and Engineering Careers further emphases these findings.

Engineers Australia’s Women in Engineering National Committee is working to close this gender divide – to attract, retain, support and celebrate women in engineering. Programs, such as our school talk program, EngTalk, attract girls into engineering. Having identified the career gap many women experience while having families as a retention issue, we provide networking and continuing professional development to keep non-working engineers relevant and current through our Save Our Souls events. We celebrate the achievements of notable female engineers and organisations, using them as role models for how gender diversity can be achieved.

WIENC also works with industry to help engineering organisations retain women in engineering. Through a series of workshops with industry partners, WIENC has developed a series of industry blueprints. The first, published in 2013, helped organisations understanding the need for gender diversity and steps on how to introduce women engineering groups within organisations. The second blueprint, published last year, helps organisations put in place strategies to retain female engineers.

The blueprints have been effective in creating change in engineering workplaces – the Engineers Australia industry survey found there are policies in place in most organisations, such as paid maternity/paternity leave and flexible work conditions, to create flexible, effective workplaces.

However employees are not taking up these polices. Why? Because of inherent bias.

This month the third in the series of industry blueprints, Action Plan for Mitigating Gender Bias, was released, focusing on the social and cultural changes needed to foster diversity, rather than structural changes.

Much of the time people do not realise they are inhibiting diversity. Engineers are human and as such all possess some bias. It is the recognition and mitigation of the biases that individuals have that is the next step towards making gender diversity the norm for our organisations’ and our country’s culture.

Women have progressed so far with the gender equality debate, but there is still more to be done. The faster we can create this cultural shift towards recognising our inherent biases, the faster equal numbers of men and women in engineering workplaces – especially in leadership positions – will become the norm.

This isn’t something we should be working on for our great-great-great grandchildren, 300 years from now. It’s something we should see now, and I urge all engineering organisations to get on board to make this diverse, equal workplace a reality.

Nee Nee Ong is Engineers Australia Women in Engineering national committee chair.

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  1. As a Participation & Equity Program co-ordinator at Randwick North High in the 1980s, I remember well trying to organise a panel of high achieving women for a ‘women in science and engineering’ workshop for the girls at the school. I had heard of an Asian background Australian woman, who’d won the UNSW University Medal in Electrical Engineering a few years before and thought that she’d be an excellent role model. However, when I contacted her, she was very reluctant to participate, pointing out that the only job she’d been able to get was as a clerk in the public service. The engineering profession wasn’t interested in her services.

    Unfortunately, it seems that not much has changed.