A smart Australia needs diverse engineers

Dr Marlene Kanga AM, company director and former National President, Engineers Australia, says inclusiveness is so low on the agenda in engineering workplaces that some sites still lack basic amenities for women. Here she writes about how important gender inclusion is to our economy.

With the mining boom now over, there is a very obvious potential economic force in Australia, which, if developed, can create new jobs, drive innovation, economic growth and address our budget deficit. Ensuring greater workforce participation of Australian women, particularly in science, engineering and technology is essential for developing new industries and for the knowledge economy.

According to the Grattan Institute in 2012, increasing women’s workforce participation is one of the top three economic reform priorities for Australia. An increase of just 6 per cent, to the same levels as Canada which has a similar resource based economy, would add $25 billion, or approximately 1 per cent to Australia’s Gross Domestic Product.

The World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report 2014, ranked Australia at 24, down from 15 in 2006, because other countries improved their gender gap at a faster rate. This rank takes into account various factors including educational attainment, health outcomes and political empowerment. Australia was first in female educational attainment out of 136 participating countries but ranked 51 in labour force participation and 63 in wage equality for similar work.

In the post-mining boom era, where Australia is looking towards innovation to develop new industries and create jobs, there is a serious deficit in the participation of women in science, engineering and technology. These are the worst-performing sectors for female participation by any measure.

Listed companies in these sectors have the lowest proportion of women on their boards, and most of the women that are appointed do not have a science or engineering background.

There are less than five Australian-owned companies in these sectors that were listed as Employers of Choice by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency in 2014. This indicates the majority have not implemented systematic processes to ensure gender equity.

Australia is falling behind in the proportion of girls studying science and mathematics, which are the enabling subjects for tertiary studies in engineering.

In engineering, this proportion remains below 20 per cent, although pockets of higher percentages exist in some faculties. On graduation, more than half of female graduates in engineering do not enter the workforce. Of the rest, another 50 per cent leave within the first 10 years, especially whenthey start a family.

The losses continue so that there are fewer than 1 per cent of Australian-born women engineers remaining in the cohort of engineers aged over 50. Consequently, the pipeline of women engineers progressing to leadership positions is full of very large holes.

By comparison, our neighbours in Asia and Africa are powering along, attracting girls to science and engineering as careers of choice, providing high levels of respect and satisfaction. In Malaysia, for example, 20 per cent of registered engineers are women and the proportions studying engineering are around 50 per cent, supported by government policies that recognise the importance of women’s contribution to innovation and economic development. Women around the world are studying engineering and are active in the profession in increasing numbers.

It’s a myth that engineering is a male dominated profession or that women cannot do mathematics. Women excel at these subjects, and I know many who derive enormous enjoyment from the intellectual challenges and opportunities that engineering provides. However, until the proportion of women engineers increases to around 25 per cent, the vicious cycle of losses will continue as women vote with their feet rather than remain in workplaces where they are invisible to decision makers who sometimes fail to provide them with even basic amenities.

Our leaders have already demonstrated what’s possible with engineering organisations successfully transforming their culture in the past decade to ensure safe workplaces. Companies have shifted from a “she’ll be right” attitude to one where safety is paramount and non-negotiable, recognised as an important goal by everyone. Australia’s safety performance is world class.  Changes are also occurring in the management of the environment and attention to sustainability.

Similarly, there is a need for the leaders of the engineering profession to change the workplace to be more diverse and inclusive. As with safety, this transformation requires a strategic approach led from the top. Our leaders need to ensure workplaces provide equal opportunity and value the diverse thinking of people from different backgrounds, ages, gender and abilities.   Inclusive cultures engender respect for all individuals and the contributions they make. Importantly, these differences will drive innovation, improved financial performance, better governance and ultimately better economic outcomes for Australia.

Originally produced by Guardian Australia Brand Partnerships to a brief agreed with and paid for by ANZ.