UNSW aims to boost female participation in engineering

Monday, 11 January 2016
NSW aims to boost female participation in engineering

To alleviate chronic skills shortages in the engineering industry, the University of New South Wales' Faculty of Engineering is undertaking a number of initiatives to boost its intake of female students.

While there are some 18,000 engineering job openings every year in Australia, only 6,000 are filled by Australian graduates. The other 12,000 come from overseas, with 25 percent on temporary work visas. Every year, the nation imports more than double the number of engineers than those who graduate from Australian universities.

Of the almost 6,000 engineering graduates every year, almost 20 percent come from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney, which has by far the country’s biggest engineering faculty.

“Demand from industry completely outstrips supply, and that demand is not slowing – in fact, it has doubled in the past decade,” said Mark Hoffman, Dean of Engineering at UNSW.

According to UNSW, it is continuing to boost the number of incoming engineering students, with 2016 seeing a seven percent year-on-year boost in enrolments. But more needs to be done, not just in increasing the numbers of locally trained engineers, but also in rebalancing the genders within engineering.

Only about 13 percent of engineers in Australia are female. While the ratio is improving, UNSW's Faculty of Engineering says it wants to boost these numbers dramatically, and is investing in a number of initiatives to support this.

For example, the faculty has recently tripled the number of its Women in Engineering scholarships to 15, with a value of more than $150,000 annually. These scholarships are funded by UNSW, industry partners such as the Commonwealth Bank, Arup and WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff, and private benefactors.

The faculty is also holding its annual Women in Engineering Camp between 11 and 15 February, which will be bigger than ever before, with 90 young women in participation. These students from Years 11 and 12 will spend five days at UNSW, exploring engineering as a career and visiting major companies like Google, Resmed, Transurban and Sydney Water to see the engineering profession in action. Just over a third of the UNSW campers are from interstate or regional New South Wales.

They will network with real-life female engineers, and work in teams on week-long design projects that make them see how their maths and science skills can be applied to the real world.  In the past, 75 percent of girls who attended the camp in Year 12 have gone on to enrol in engineering at UNSW.

“There may be young women in high school right now who could become some of the best engineers ever born – but if they don’t know about the profession and what it offers, they’ll never realise that potential,” said Alexandra Bannigan, Manager of the Women in Engineering Initiative at UNSW.

“If we succeed, it’s a win for them as individuals, it’s a win for us as a society and it’s a win for the engineering profession.”

 Other UNSW initiatives aiming to boost female participation include on-campus events aimed at female students from 14 and up, school visits, annual awards which highlight successful women engineers and mentorship of students at high school.

Hoffman, after becoming Dean of Engineering at UNSW less than a year ago, has made boosting the number of women in engineering one of his priorities. He aims to raise female representation among students, staff and researchers to 30 percent by 2020. Currently, 21 percent of UNSW engineering students are female. The Australian average is just 16 percent.

"Engineering has one of the highest starting salaries, and the average starting salary for engineering graduates has been actually higher for women than for men," Hoffman said.

According to Hoffman, innovation can only result from diverse teams bringing together different perspectives.

"This isn’t just about plugging the chronic skills gap – it’s also a social good to bring diversity to our technical workforce, which will help stimulate more innovation," he explained. "We can’t win at the innovation game if half of our potential engineers are not taking part in the race."