Gender diversity:
are we shifting or fixing the problem?

Many of the problems facing the world will require complex and imaginative solutions, spanning across multiple disciplines and utilising a wide variety of perspectives and experience.

The best solutions will benefit from having very diverse teams working on the problems at hand.

Diversity within an organisation not only opens doors to a broader talent pool, but also allows for varied viewpoints and helps reduce siloed thinking, thereby fostering greater innovation and improving an organisation’s functional health. But as a whole, how does the engineering industry achieve this?

Over the past decade, many engineering companies have announced equity targets to address the gender imbalance in an industry traditionally dominated by men. One of the more ambitious targets is from BHP Billiton, who set a 50:50 gender target for 2025. It’s ambitious because the multinational resources giant currently only has 17 per cent female staff in its global workforce.

Although this increase will not be exclusively professional engineering roles, it does mean that in eight years BHP Billiton will need to attract and retain 21,000 women into their organisation.

Many other organisations are also setting hiring goals as part of their diversity strategies. One company has reported a target of up to 80 per cent women in their graduate recruitment. The risk is that some multinationals will progress towards their equity targets, employing a disparate number of women, resulting in a wider struggle across smaller companies in the engineering industry to build diverse teams.

While we applaud industry for its commitment to necessary change, unfortunately the talent pool of skilled female engineers graduating from universities isn’t growing at the rate our industry needs to achieve its goals. We have to ask, are we really working together on fixing the problem, or are we merely shifting the engineering gender diversity issue with current approaches to headline targets?

The way to achieve the growth that industry requires will need a shift from reactive recruiting to helping schools and universities develop a sustainable talent pipeline of suitable female candidates. And to do this, there needs to be a continuous, collaborative approach between all partners to truly make a transformational impact. In 2013, The University of Queensland commenced Australia’s first university-led, industry-funded initiative to address the gender disparity in engineering at both the tertiary and industry levels.

The Women in Engineering (WE) program was established, with the support of Rio Tinto, APPEA, API and later Origin Foundation. The program has seen sustained success throughout its four years reaching out to girls in senior school and providing mentoring, training and support to the young women who enter our university cohort.

We have seen significant growth in female student numbers, with women now accounting for 23.8 per cent of commencing engineering students in 2017 – up from 18.8 per cent before 2013 and well above the current national average of 16 per cent. The program's key performance indicator is to achieve more than 30 per cent before 2023.

Our ultimate goal, however, is to improve the gender balance in students studying engineering across the whole university sector, not just at UQ. We want to see broad systemic change that can benefit the industry in Australia and globally, and we fundamentally believe that schools, universities and industry need to work better together if this is to be achieved.

To support our goals, UQ recently hosted the first joint-university workshop to collaborate and share best practice for recruiting females into university engineering degrees. More than 30 representatives from 18 universities across Australia and New Zealand as well as from the University of Colorado in the USA attended the event, and were committed to achieving the long-term objective of increasing women's participation in engineering at all Australian universities.

As a group, our first challenge is educating young women about their perceptions of engineering. Most young people, both male and female, simply do not understand what a graduate engineer does or what a career in engineering can offer to them. The lack of obvious role models for young women and a need for increased self-confidence to pursue a career in a field dominated by men are further barriers to surmount.

We are starting to tackle some of these issues with the help of both our undergraduate students and our young alumni; both groups providing role models that future students can identify with and learn from. A program of school visits and on-campus activities are helping us showcase why engineering can be a great choice. The messaging we use around engineering is important and it is all too easy to reinforce stereotypes.

A key feature for us in our programs has been to explore how we can deliver positive messages about where a career in engineering can take you regardless of what you look like or where you come from.

In the end, we must ensure that more female students are graduating with engineering degrees if we are to achieve better gender diversity within our industry. This will require any barriers preventing them from entering the engineering field to be identified, addressed and removed. It also requires a grassroots effort from early childhood through to high school to gain interest in STEM fields and continue through to education on engineering careers. A partnership between government, universities and industry will be needed if we are to achieve lasting change in the diversity of the engineering workforce.

Read more
about UQ Women in Engineering.

Image: UQ's Engineering Futures Evening provides an opportunity for young women to meet role models working in the industry.