Reflections on the Past, Present and Future of Women in Engineering

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From 1994 to 2005 the Australasian Women in Engineering (WIE) Forum was run in conjunction with the annual Australasian Association for Engineering Education (AaeE) conference, initially as a related forum held immediately before or after the main conference, and later as a stream within the main conference. At the 2006 conference the issue of the decreasing profile of the Women in Engineering forum within the conference was debated at a plenary session "Has Gender gone off the Agenda?". Subsequently, in 2007 there was only one paper session devoted to "Women in Engineering", and in 2008 and 2009 a single paper session devoted to "Diversity". Hence it would seem that the engineering education fraternity consider that either the issues of women in engineering are solved, or that there is nothing new to say about it. Or, maybe it is just too hard and we have given up beating our heads against the brick wall?

This paper reviews and reflects on the issues of women in engineering, focusing particularly on education, based on 30 years of personal and research involvement in the area. It will examine a range of data and recent studies to explore the past and present situation of women in engineering and then focus on what remains to be done in the future.


2.1 Australia

While there are certainly more women in engineering than there used to be in the mid 1980s, the percentage of women entering and completing engineering education in Australia has stagnated for the last decade. Figure 1 presents data for students commencing engineering degrees in Australia from 1983 to 2009, showing the percentage of commencing students who are women. Figures are taken from the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) (formerly Department of Education, Science and Training (DEST)) databases and hence are for the broad field of "Engineering and Related Technologies" from 2001, previously designated as "Engineering, Surveying" from 1983 to 2000. The data therefore include a small number of students undertaking surveying degrees, but since these numbers are very small and the proportion of women very similar, this does not have a significant influence on the outcome. The data include both undergraduate and postgraduate commencements.

In 2008 the percentage of 16.5% finally surpassed the previous highest of 16.4% in 2001, although it dropped back to 16.4% in 2009. However, these data are slightly misleading due to the higher percentage of women entering postgraduate study. Examining the data for Bachelor degree commencement only shows that this percentage in 2009 was 15.4%, still less than the peak of 15.8% in 2001. In terms of raw numbers of entrants, 2133 female students commenced Bachelor degrees in engineering in 2001, and 2377 in 2008; an almost negligible increase. The next lowest broad field of education in terms of female participation is information technology with 20.2%, then architecture and building, with 40.8% in 2009, although these areas have also plateaued for at least the last five years. That statistic also masks the low percentage of women in building degrees compared with architecture degrees.


2.2 International

The situation is similar in other English-speaking, western countries. In USA women comprised 18.1% of total undergraduate completions in engineering in 2007-2008, which was the lowest percentage since 1996 (ASEE, 2009). In Canada, female graduation from undergraduate engineering degrees decreased from a peak of 21.8% in 2003 to 18.9% in 2007 (Engineers Canada, 2009). The percentage of female graduations in engineering in the UK has not followed this downward trend, steadily increasing to 15.5% in 2005-2006 (UKRC, 2009), but this is still noticeably lower than other European countries.

There are some countries and regions where the percentage of women graduating with engineering degrees is significantly higher than in the English-speaking countries, although nowhere is it in line with the female percentage of overall population, or of the female percentage of university graduates (see Mills et al (2010), Chapter 2, for a range of relevant statistics). …