A different perspective
For Dr Lucy Marshall, a civil engineering degree was initially something of a fallback option.
“I really didn’t know what I wanted to do when I finished high school, but I knew that I loved maths, and I thought engineering would get me a good job,” she says.
While she enjoyed her bachelor’s degree enough to pursue postgraduate study, it wasn’t until she started doing research that she really found her niche. Her passion? Terrestrial hydrology, with a focus on catchment responses to rainfall.
“I started seeing how I could use mathematics to apply to different sorts of engineered systems or natural systems, and then I realised oh, this is what I love; this is what I want to pursue,” says Dr Marshall, now an ARC Future Fellow in the Water Research Centre at UNSW Australia.
“When I was doing my undergraduate degree, if I’d looked 10 years into the future, I wouldn’t have thought that I’d be working in catchments. That’s pretty cool, that I can be doing problem-solving and applying mathematical concepts to something that might be considered outside of the classical civil engineering career path.” As one of four female academics in the UNSW School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Dr Marshall embodies a modern-day engineering story – a woman making great strides beyond the confines of a tradition- al engineering career.
It’s a story replicated in the trajectories of her col- leagues, coastal engineer Dr Kristen Splinter, who studies sediment transport and coastal change due to storms; Dr Fiona Johnson, a hydrologist with a focus on rainfall and climate change; and Dr Lauren Gardner, a transport engineer who models the risk of disease spread as a result of human mobility.
But as working engineers, all four women are still exceptions in the largely male-dominated world of engineering. According to Engineers Australia, only 11.8 per cent of professional engineers were women as of the 2011 census, but the reasons behind such gender disparity remain difficult to untangle.
I hope that when they see us, they realise that engineering is a good option for them
Dr Kristen Splinter
From misconceptions about what an engineering career actually involves and a lack of girls pursuing science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects in high school, to a dearth of female role models in the up per echelons of the profession, the engineering sector faces an ongoing battle to attract young women.
“I don’t think many people, when they’re leaving high school, really have a strong concept of what the reality of day-to-day work in their industry is actually like,” says Dr Johnson, who believes that a warped perception of engineering careers might be pushing young women away.
“The day-to-day roles of an engineer include doing calculations, drawing plans and maps, looking at all the constraints, getting community feedback, talking to government departments and other stateholders. Even if you’re working on a road project, the reality is that you’re not actually out there pouring the concrete.”
Getting girls to recognise that engineering offers opportunities beyond mining, chemicals and electronics is important too – data shows that female students gravitate towards disciplines such as environmental, civil and humanitarian engineering, rather than more traditional fields.
“There are copious niches within the engineering profession for people that have mathematical and science-based skill sets, and an interest in applying them to real-world problems,” says Dr Gardner.
“Essentially engineers are just problem-solvers that can do critical thinking and solve problems quantitatively as well as qualitatively.”
The School is working hard to introduce female students to engineering as a career path from early in their schooling. Initiatives include sponsorship of a Year 10 work experience week, in which 60 students (a third of whom in 2016 were female) from NSW schools spend a week seeing civil and environmental engineering in action; a graduate ambassador program, where female engineering alumni are encouraged to promote engineering careers to high school girls; and full support for the UNSW Faculty of Engineering’s Women in Engineering (WiE) Development program and the WiE student society. Indeed, in 2016 a majority of participants in the UNSW Women In Engineering Society’s Industry Mentoring Program were students or alumni from the school, from both civil and environmental disciplines. We are especially grateful to our alumni, both men and women, who have returned to participate as mentors. All these endeavours are already bearing fruit. Nearly 22 per cent of students within the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering are female, compared to a national average of 16 per cent. Like the Faculty, the School is committed to aiming for a 30 per cent female undergraduate participation rate by 2020.
There’s still a long way to go, but these numbers signal a shift in the right direction.
“High school teachers, mentors and guidance counsellors need to encourage females to consider these historically more male-dominated fields,” Dr Splinter says.
“But I think we are slowly making changes, and these are coming from the next generation through supportive mentors and peer acceptance. At Open Day, there were prospective female students waiting to talk to us over our male colleagues. I hope that when they see us, they realise that engineering is a good option for them.”