OPINION | Women belong at the engineering design table

Dr Bianca Capra and Professor Scott Tyo | 21 Aug 2021

“What have engineers ever done for me?” It’s a question we have heard several times.

The answer of course is, “quite a lot”.

Perhaps the fact that the impact our engineers have is so ‘unseen’ is testament to the importance of these professions.  

Most of us walk around with a high-powered personal computer in our hands. 

Technology has kept us connected during the covid crisis.

Engineers have been integral for developing the processes to produce and deliver the covid vaccines en masse.  

We owe all of these, and many more, to the ingenuity and creativity of engineers.

There is no doubt that engineers shape our world.

We live in structures, drive cars, and use daily public health infrastructure designed by engineers.

But have you ever wondered what happens when there is a lack of diversity, in culture and gender, around the design table?

We get solutions and products that are not suitable for all, and we fail to realise the best outcomes.

The most famous example of inequitable outcomes might be seatbelts, a product optimised for male characteristics leading to greater injury to women.

Other examples include the lack of female protective gear for sports, leading to increasing breast injury in female footballers and the development of artificial intelligence tools that fail to address racial biases in societies.

It is curious that women remain underrepresented in engineering. History is full of amazing engineers such as Bessie Blount and Beatrice Shilling.

Yet today, less then 13% of degree qualified engineers in Australia are female.  

We know that attrition from STEM subjects in school is a significant part of the problem, but so too is the lack of visible engineering role models for our young women.

UNSW Canberra initiated the YoWIE program in 2016 to address this problem. 

At YoWIE, young women experience the creativity, teamwork, and skills engineers use daily.

Equally important, they see and learn from the diverse role models  our team.

We know our program is effective.

There are now five YoWIEs studying engineering out of the 35 that have graduated from high school.

Yes, the numbers are small, but they are growing. YoWIE is about making long term structural change to the make-up of Australia’s engineering workforce, and this takes time.

These last 18 months have shown us that the future will be challenging.

Beyond pandemics, solutions to mitigate the long-term impacts of climate change, address our energy production network and secure our sovereign capabilities will be needed.

These are big challenging problems that impact all of society. We can only meet these with engineering teams that represent all of society and this means more women at the design table.

Our future is exciting and challenging. Our future is STEM. Our future is engineering.

YoWIE2022 will be held 11-13 April 2022. Registrations open 1 September. 

Dr Bianca Capra and Professor Scott Tyo are the current chairs of YoWIE. Bianca is an aerospace engineer working on highspeed flight and Scott is an electrical engineer whose research explores new ways to image the world around us.  Both work in the School of Engineering and IT at UNSW Canberra and are strong advocates for equity, diversity, and inclusion in engineering.

Follow Bianca on LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram. Follow Scott on LinkedIn

A version of this article was originally published by Australian Community Media

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