Women make up only 12 per cent of the engineering workforce in Australia. Research shows the gap starts at a young age when girls in middle school and high school start to get subtle messages that math and science are for boys.

Yet diverse teams facilitate diverse thought, often leading to better solution generation and outcomes. Increasing female participation in engineering is important for all of us.

Run out of The University of Western Australia and supported by Rio Tinto, Girls in Engineering takes engineers and recent graduates into schools to talk to students about engineering and future work opportunities.

“The aim of the program is to, show young girls in Years 7-10 that engineering is really about solving problems using maths and science to promote and create social impact,” says Girls in Engineering coordinator, Madeline Hermawan.

We partner with the University of Western Australia to challenge the gender stereotypes surrounding STEM, and inspire girls to consider engineering as a career choice

“We know there’s a point at which girls start dropping out of science and maths because of cultural and social norms around what it means to enter certain professions, such as engineering,” explains Madeline.

“Our mission is to catch them at that point in their lives, challenge the gender stereotypes surrounding STEM, and inspire them to consider engineering as a career choice,” she says.

Since 2014, the programme has reached over 3600 students through in-school visits as well as several on-campus immersion days to showcase exciting research, student groups, and technologies. The programme has 11 partner schools in the Perth Metro region. It targets both girls and boys (co-ed classrooms) as this is key in changing culture.

Madeline Hermawan, Girls in Engineering coordinator Madeline Hermawan, Girls in Engineering coordinator
Madeline Hermawan, Girls in Engineering coordinator

Women have what it takes to succeed in engineering

Madeline says it’s a misconception that men have a greater disposition for engineering than women. “Women are problem solvers,” she says.

“So when we go into schools we give them problems to solve. For example, in our biomimicry session (technology inspired by nature), we give them waterproof paper, water and a few tools and encourage them to come up with real-world problems they can solve with these bits and pieces.

“They break up into groups and invariably come back with great solutions to global problems, such as sheltering homeless people and collecting water in drought areas.”

In another activity, the students are challenged to run a mine. “They are given ore (actually, a box full of magnetic tiles) and encouraged to operate the mine safely and productively,” says Madeline.

“These kinds of fun activities are designed for girls to understand they have the ability to be miners of the future. It’s about developing transferrable skills of problem solving, critical thinking, and teamwork, reassuring them that they’re fully equipped to do the job.”

Meet Jodie: a graduate engineer from University of WA - “Being an engineer means you apply science and math in a way that improves human life”

Technology driving change

Madeline argues that one of the reasons why women are now being drawn to mining is because of a change in the nature of the industry.

“Industries such as mining don’t only need mining and civil engineers. They also need electrical and software engineers to drive innovations in safety and efficiency, such as driverless trucks, and chemical engineers and environmental engineers to refine and rehabilitate responsibly,” says Madeline.

 “And the growth in automation is also facilitating women entering the mining industry. They can now work remotely, whilst still having the exciting opportunity to work on-site. And companies like Rio Tinto have flexible working hours and parental leave policies in place so both women and men can balance the demands of work and home.”

Meet Megan: A Girls in Engineering mentor from University of WA who inspires other girls to study engineering

Girls in engineering – a natural place

In years to come the discussion over women in engineering will look as weirdly old-fashioned as the suffragettes marching for the right to vote.

Indeed, Megan Royce, current UWA Master of Professional Engineering student and one of Madeline’s Girls in Engineering mentors, can’t believe people still look at her strangely when she says she’s an engineering student.

“When I tell people that I’m studying engineering and maths there’s always a surprised look on their faces. They say, ‘What? You don’t look like an engineer’. I just give them a look back now and say, ‘Of course, I can do engineering’.”

Megan says that women have nothing to fear when they enter male-dominated faculties.

“I think it is very important for all girls out there to know they can study engineering, maths and science just as well as any boy. There’s no difference in their brains so they should give it a go,” says Megan.