I had promised to follow up on a previous post: Approaches to Diversity from a few weeks back, and so here it is!  Now this is an interesting issue really close to my heart and I have had the chance to look at some of your comments and discuss this further with a few people, so I’m going to try and encapsulate some of it with this post. 

As a quick recap, in the previous post on this topic I talked about the low intake rate and even more dismal retention of women in the field of engineering. In recent years, we have seen a steady increase in intake rate, but a large percentage of these young women are leaving engineering soon after they get their degree, choosing instead careers in business or management. So why are we seeing this happening? Should the government just keep spending money for engineering departments to churn out graduates that are not going to eventually lead to the high numbers of engineers we need to develop our country? What can we do about it?

Afriquanwoman said: 

“One approach is reaching out in schools, from a very early age. Support networks are great too, I have found them valuable is anchoring myself in the profession, especially after having maternity leave.”

 I agree with Emang here, we need to get to girls early enough for them to realise that careers in science and engineering are real possibilities and can be fun! This is something that is personally relevant to me as well. When I decided on studying mechanical engineering, my parents, teachers, and many friends all advised me against it! After prize-giving, when it was announced that I’d be studying mechanical engineering on full scholarship, one mother came up to me and said, “But isn’t that a very manly thing, Rhea?”

So definitely, educating people on what engineering can be (not just grease and big machines) is important in changing the perception of the field to young women. I love www.EngineerYourLife.org for the work they do, giving girls a platform to grow as young engineers.

Naadiya, co-founder of the awesome and amazing SAWomEng wrote: 

“At SAWomEng, we are in the process of solving or at least putting together platforms to discuss and solve some of the critical issues facing the attraction and retention of women in the engineering industry. This year, from our GirlEng group, about 75% of the girls will be studying engineering next year for the right reasons – to be an engineer. It is exciting times as we aim to “build the staircase” to fix the problem. Watch this space…

So yes, there is a definite trend towards changing the perception of the field, and everyone agrees that ‘the engineering flame’ must be lit early on, But what about the retention of these girls in the field? I spoke to a lecturer in my department, a particularly old-school professor who had strong (and well known) views on women in the field…(note, I’m paraphrasing here)

Prof C: “I have no problem with women in mechanical engineering. If they feel comfortable being here, they can come! But I wouldn’t want people to be in a career that makes them feel uncomfortable.” 

(Well Prof, I can tell you right now, being in a class of mostly males is daunting and very UNCOMFORTABLE for most girls!)
Eng-Chic: “But what about the value that diversity adds to the class? What about the fact that having a diverse spread of people will generate a greater range of ideas then if you only had one demographic of students with identical backgrounds?”

Prof C: “Well, in my years of being a design lecturer, I’ve observed that most students, no matter their backgrounds, will produce a very narrow range of ideas for any assignment. Unless there is absolute proof that diversity benefits mechanical engineering students, I don’t see the value. I don’t think we should take women just for diversity’s sake. And I don’t agree with the quota system because it means we end up taking students who are not the best performers, or only applied here because they couldn’t get into medicine or business”.”

Okay, so this approach was clearly not working. How do you get through to someone who disregarded soft-skills to such a great extent. He’s an engineer right, and engineers are logical...

Eng-Chic: “Yes, I get that with the push for a higher intake of female students or the ‘quota-system’, we end up taking students that are not necessarily top performers. But women are coming and that is a fact. Things are changing and I think the industry needs to change to facilitate it, to help it along even.Women are not taking over from men in the field, we are expanding its scope, adding to what mech eng is and what it can be.”

Prof C: “Well, as you say, change will happen. So let it happen naturally. I don’t think we need to do anything actively to facilitate it.”

Eng-Chic: “No, we must actively change. We have to make the industry more attractive to women. Like the Engineering News magazine for instance. Its interesting and important, but completely male-focused! Its painful for me to page through, but the articles are really great. Women respond to colour and design and are being put off by the how the engineering world portrays itself. We need to let the women know that not only is there a space for them, but an entire platform for them to mold and shape the field, bringing in their femininity and being who they are! This way, we will be attracting the girls who would have applied to medicine and business, the top performers. They will come here, to engineering, first, and not as a third option. We need to make this a valuable and attractive career for a woman to pursue. Otherwise, we’ll keep just getting women for the sake of having women doing the course.”

Prof C: “Hmmm…So make the field more attractive to woman and attract a higher caliber of applicant that actually wants to be here? Wow, you’re right. You’re absolutely right! I suppose we do need to change.”

And thats how Engineer-Chic won….

Just kidding. It was a small victory, but I’ll take it. B.H., founding member of EWB UCT and ex-Chair did his thesis on “Challenges in Producing 21st Century Engineering”…I’ll get into this one in the next post but for now, I’m trying to have an open mind about things. 

I’ll leave you with one last thought from Naadiya that really got me thinking that maybe I need to open my mind even further to the way I view engineering:

“But as we move into the future, and after experiencing the African Leadership Network, I met many engineers from MIT, Harvard etc, many of whom are not practicing engineers, I realised that they still have immense value as they own their own companies creating job opportunities, working in development banks etc…and this just shows the flexibility of our degrees and the ability for engineers to change the world.