There’s no mistaking that women in engineering face enormous challenges in the workplace. From pay gaps to unsupportive policies – many challenges remain to help close the gap.
While there’s still a lot of work to do, new data shows women are faring better in the job market.
By Chris Davis
Statistics analysed by Engineers Australia have found Australian-born women in most states and territories have been more resilient in the job market compared to men.
Employment participation is a key indicator of job market health and show the rates at which different sections of the population are actively participating in the labour market.
In a weaker labour market, a falling participation rate indicates a discouraged worker effect where workers either retire or join the ranks of the long-term unemployed.
Using ABS data, Engineers Australia drafted an analysis that pointed to rises in participation rates for Australian born women engineers in Queensland, South Australia and NSW, with the remaining states and territories holding steady.
In contrast, participation rates for men had fallen in every jurisdiction.
The data is clearest in NSW which has the largest engineering labour force. There, participation rates for Australian born women rose from 79.3 per cent in 2006 to 80.3 per cent in 2016.
For men the rates took a dive, from 81.9 per cent participation in 2006 to 77.9 per cent in 2016, in response to weakened labour market conditions.
Despite a collapse in the job market in the Global Financial Crisis and again when the mining construction boom ended, Australian born women managed to maintain a relatively high participation rate and find work.
The new trend is promising. It shows a greater realisation that women make great engineers and the possibility that this could lead to higher shares of women in engineering.
Is this a sign of future change?
While good news stories emerge, including how graduate women engineers are earning more than men, it’s evident women still face challenges.
Women still only represent 13.6 per cent of the engineering cohort in Australia. Out of those qualified, women are less likely to work in engineering roles with about 46.3 per cent of qualified females employed in engineering roles. This is compared to 57.9 per cent for men.
For women born overseas the situation is grim. Unemployment rates for overseas born women are some of the highest compared to men and Australian born women. In Victoria, unemployed migrant women engineers have a 11.3 per cent rate, in NSW it’s 10 per cent. Compare this with Australian born engineers which is at just 3 per cent.
Engineers Australia Head of Public Affairs Jonathan Russell says while there’s still plenty of room for improvement, the participation data is a promise of future growth in improving gender disparity in engineering.
“This is a small bump in the grand scheme of the issue, but when you compare to other data, women tend to always fair worse than men when it comes to participation or unemployment.”
“The participation data shows a sign of promise that many haven’t looked into yet. Coupled with other factors, we can see it’s a small ripple of change.”
Jonathan says Engineers Australia is focused on creating a profession for all through its new Diversity and Inclusion strategy.
“We’re encouraging all engineering businesses to include diversity targets. We understand it’s tough to introduce any sort of change in businesses. We hope data like this can help dispel hardened myths about women in the workplace.”
There are many factors that may influence the low number of women entering the profession, from access to flexible working practices, a significant pay gap and for many there is a lack of meaningful leadership to support women in engineering.
Support is important: what industry is already doing to address the gap
Valeria Ignatieva, Co-CEO at DCC Jobs, a job site that pre-screens employers to ensure they support women in the workplace, says they are seeing a positive trend.
Since launching in 2015, DCC Jobs has approved more than 150 employers and thousands of jobs.
Valeria says there are plenty of engineering employers committed to creating an equal workplace with support that suit the need of all employees.
“AECOM for example have invested in closing the gender pay gap and in the space of 12 months, reduced the gap by 3.4 per cent across its 2,750 Australian employees,” Valeria says.
“The company also assigned a $1 million budget for 2016 and 2017 to rectify pay disparities for women.”
Valeria also praised AECOM’s changes towards performance, taking into account all employees.
“When deciding to give a man a pay increase, managers must also consider appropriate pay increases for women around him,” she says.
Other DCC Endorsed Employers have been working towards becoming a Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) Pay Equity Ambassador.
Valeria says tackling the gender super gap is another priority for their Endorsed Employers.
“Engineering firms and other businesses recognise the structural impediments currently resulting in women retiring with an average of 47 per cent less in super compared to men,” she said.
“Schneider Electric along with BHP, Aurecon and Thales are some of the few engineering firms which pay superannuation whilst on unpaid parental leave. This is an extremely important initiative to make super fair.”
The looming challenges ahead
But despite the cultural shifts in some of the world’s top engineering organisations, there are other influences that are tougher to overcome.
Fewer young women are studying high school subjects necessary to enter engineering degrees.
Retention of young women in STEM subjects is dropping year-on-year. Last year’s Engineers Make Things Happen report found less than 6 per cent of girls nationally studied physics in year 12, with advanced maths numbers almost as bad – 6.2 per cent for girls and 11.5 per cent for boys.
Unconscious bias is also playing a part in how women are hired. A recent report prepared by the Monash Industry Team Initiative (MITI) for Engineers Australia stated that a study by Bohnet et. al found that males are more likely than females to be successful in securing a role when experience, skills and abilities of male and female candidates are indistinguishable.
“This suggests that unconscious bias plays a large role in recruitment and selection decisions,” the MITI report finds.
“Job advertisements and their wording can have a profound influence on the amount of women that apply: descriptions that use words such as competitive, dominant and leader are less likely to attract female applicants.”
But despite the challenges, there is increasing support from businesses, strong gains in the employment market, and growing industry resilience. It’s fair to say we’re seeing the early signs of a shift in the engineering workforce.
This makes it a tough environment to make any predictions, but these green shoots are encouraging of a brighter future for females in the profession.
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