As a discipline, engineering has a great deal to be proud of, enabling our science, our medicine and our very means of living. As a profession it has transformative power, and its potential to effect positive change is one of its most appealing aspects. Against this great strength is balanced the great weakness of the discipline, which is its appallingly low levels of gender diversity, particularly in the nations typically referred to as the “West”. Despite strong efforts to address this gender disparity, there has been minimal improvement in most areas of engineering in recent decades. This lack of equal gender representation hinders the field in a number of ways. Firstly, there is now broad evidence to suggest that diversity and inclusivity improve performance in a range of fields. Diverse groups question more, produce higher impact work, and just generally perform better. The second impact is simpler, and more direct. Engineering is a difficult discipline, generally demanding a high level of mathematical competency. There is a plethora of data that demonstrate there is no disparity in mathematical aptitude between genders, however mathematical ability is a much stronger predictor of whether a student will study engineering if that student is male. Essentially, we do a good job of convincing young men who are good at maths that they should be engineers, but we do a much poorer job with young women. This means that we are missing out on a large fraction of our potential engineering and science workforce; talented young women are choosing to take their mathematical talents elsewhere.
It is a two-fold tragedy that we are failing to convince so many young women that they have a place in the discipline. A tragedy at the societal level because the power of engineering to effect positive change depends on a strong workforce, and a tragedy at the individual level because there are undoubtedly many girls who could grow up to find great satisfaction as engineers, but will be convinced not to do so. I believe that improving gender diversity is the single most important challenge facing our profession, and the area in which I have the potential for the greatest impact. There are fortunately a number of groups and organizations that are working to improve gender representation in engineering; I list some I am involved with here:
Aviation/Aerospace Australia is the principle non-profit advocacy body for the aviation and aerospace industries in this country, and WA/AA is a major component of the body. Monash’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering is the official academic sponsor of WA/AA, and through this sponsorship we have been able to organize mentoring and internship for a number of our female students, many of whom have gone on to secure work in the industry via contacts made through WA/AA.
WA/AA runs numerous summits in major Australian cities each year, which provide an opportunity to hear from a range of speakers in industry, academia and defence, providing their insight into ongoing efforts to improve gender diversity. I have attended several summits in Melbourne and Canberra, and had the opportunity to speak at the 2018 summit in Melbourne.
The AFMS is the professional society for fluid mechanics research in the Australasian region. As of 2018 there is a Women in Fluids subcommittee dedicated to improving representation of women in the discipline of fluid mechanics, of which I am a founding member. So far the subcommittee has successfully lobbied to have diversity requirements included in the hosting guidelines for the biennial fluid mechanics conference, and implemented policies to make it easier for female academics to return to work after maternity leave. The committee is led by Dr. Bianca Capra of UNSW.