opinion

"We need to attract more women to engineering but 'gender points' isn't the way to do it."

Like most people, my first day of university was a flurry of excitement, nerves and new faces. I joined the thousands of men and women swarming across the campus on their way between classes. But as I approached my first engineering lecture, I noticed a shift in the crowd. The women continued walking past, and more and more men lined up outside the theatre.

I had heard about the gender divide in engineering, but it doesn’t really hit you until you are sitting in a lecture of hundreds and see the number of women attending in the tens.

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This divide isn’t just reflected in the student body.

Throughout my four-year course, I had one female lecturer for maths and one for a communication subject. That’s it. No female lecturers taught the technical engineering subjects.

The labs were held in old buildings where the female toilets could only be found on every second floor. Every floor had at least two male toilet locations, while every second floor only had one. To be fair, the new buildings being built were not gender biased and had enough facilities for all, but at the time it’s hard not to feel excluded when you have to go to a different location just to pee.

I say this to make it clear that I am fully aware of the gender discrepancy in engineering, as I have been living it. It’s little wonder that, despite the efforts that have been made to equalise the field, just over one in 10 engineers is a female today.

The University of Technology Sydney (UTS) recently announced an initiative that it hopes may help change that. It plans to offer up to 10 bonus ATAR points to women applying for undergraduate degrees in its Faculty of Engineering and IT. The university argues the initiative aims “to tip the gender balance and create a better learning environment for all students.”

Really?

By giving women a points advantage, you are just exposing all females in engineering to more scrutiny. Did she only get in because she had the ‘gender points’? Was she only chosen to increase numbers? Is she the “diversity” token on the table? Females in engineering already face these questions, and UTS’ proposed solution will only make this far worse.

uts engineering atar
"I chose engineering for my love of maths and science. Even with this, in my own mind, I still feel extremely judged all the time." Image: Supplied.
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Not to brag, but I had a very high ATAR score that would have afforded me a ticket into almost any course. I chose engineering for my love of maths and science. Even with this, I still feel extremely judged, all the time. You stand out when you decide to wear a dress on a hot day. Your voice can be pin-pointed in a large lecture theatre because it sounds feminine, and you are the only one in your section that is female. You easily become recognised as "the girl", and there's nowhere to hide.

Having more women in the course certainly would have helped with the feelings of isolation. But handing them a different entrance score doesn't change the difficulty of the course. Everyone still needs to keep up with all the work, and wouldn’t it just become more noticeable if more females were to drop out?

I believe interventions to address this issue need to begin much earlier.

The skills required to complete some of the high-level maths requirements focus a lot on the key foundations learnt in primary school. If a child has not gained a love of the skills at that point in their life, they will probably never want to be involved in STEM. I didn’t choose engineering to stand out as a female engineer. I chose engineering for my love of maths and science.

When I was in Year 5, we all got tested for our aptitude in maths. I was identified as having particularly high skills. Our school set up a classroom exchange during maths time where kids of similar levels got to learn in classes together from Years 5 to 7. I was in that high-maths-skills class for the rest of primary school and was allowed the opportunity to be challenged and learn more than what was required by the curriculum at my age. At high school, I was put into the extended learning maths class and again, got to learn more high-level skills than those who needed the extra help. Without this fostering of my love and abilities in maths, I would have become bored and disenchanted by it all and decided that engineering was just not for me.

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Engineering's gender gap problem became obvious to Sherry from her first lecture at uni. Image: Supplied.
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I believe that everyone needs to be nurtured in their own interests. I have male engineering colleagues who are upset that their daughters don't like Lego. They are afraid they are failing as fathers to introduce them to the world of STEM. It's not their fault, though. STEM isn't for everyone, just as much as journalism, teaching, nursing and owning a business isn't for everyone.

What needs to happen is there needs to be more support for those little children who do show an interest. We need to help them grow that curiosity and allow them to follow their passions. In some cases it may be as simple as providing the child with the word "engineering", because - as the saying goes - you can only be what you can see. (How often do you see an engineer in the world and know, without a doubt, that they are an engineer?)

There is more to engineering than just maths, though. Google the word engineer and look at the images presented to you. Hard hats, high visibility vests and blue prints. In reality, this is but a small sub-set of engineers do. We need to teach younger generations about the possibilities open to them, to show them that engineering is an immensely broad field with boundless opportunity. Dr Simil Raghavan has set up an essay competition to try and combat this, where you have to write about an engineering feat. Getting children interested in the field through researching what it actually means to be involved in the industry is just as helpful and can achieve the same results.

We need to support the ideas of being a part of the STEM field from a young age by introducing the terminology, concepts and the impact you can create as a scientist or an engineer. I am only one example of a solution for more female engineers. If we work to foster a passion in the younger generation to be part of the world of STEM, the long-term benefits of enthused female students will see higher female entry rates. There is no one solution, and telling women they need special ATAR points only shines more light on the problem.

Sherry Tang is a working engineer and the Secretary for the South Australian Division of Young Engineers Australia. She holds First Class Honours in a Bachelor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

What do you think of UTS lowering its ATAR entry mark requirement for female engineering student? Tell us in a comment below.

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