Why women leave engineering and grads have slow starts

Victoria’s Chief Engineer, Collette Burke explains why women start but don’t stay in engineering in her new report on engineering’s circumstances in the state. She has ideas on improving career starts as well.

Where women aren’t:  Girls stay clear of STEM at school, which flows on to university, where woman make up 15 per cent of engineering enrolments. And those that do study engineering favour biomedical, environmental and chemical engineering, with just 20 per cent taking mechanical, electrical; or civil eng courses. Women also prefer research to practise. “Research careers often lead to a more flexible lifestyle in terms of work hours, which may be why women prefer to pursue higher qualifications in engineering,” she writes. (Not that it gets them that far, Professor Burke states 7 per cent of engineering professors are women.)

And of women who do enter the engineering workforce one in six between 20 and 39 leave –compared to one in 100 men. “Limited work flexibility, a large pay gap and difficulties in career progression are often the cause,” she carefully comments.

So, what is to be done? “The causes of the lack of diversity in the engineering profession are complex. Fundamentally, we need to challenge cultural and social perceptions and stereotypes, and drive toward a long-term education strategy for parents, teachers and the community. We also need to keep investigating why, despite the many initiatives currently underway, we are not seeing the desired outcomes.”

Slow starts in engineering and what to do about them: Dr Burke warns the proportion of graduates finding FT work has dropped over the last decade adding the industry advises this is due to undergraduates lacking relevant experience before completing study.

“This highlights a critical gap, which provides a major opportunity for educational institutions, industry and government to collaborate and ensure future engineers are prepared with real-world experience,” Dr Burke suggests.

She urges engineering educators to follow medicine, nursing and law and adopt work-integrated learning via internships, cadetships and traineeships.


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