Opening the door to educational opportunities is key to closing the gender gap.
With school and university outreach programs aimed at drawing more women into engineering, along with improved visibility of women engineers and a range of other initiatives, the needle appears to be moving in the right direction.
But while most countries are committed to increasing the number of female graduates in engineering, some are leaps and bounds ahead of others in their journey towards gender parity.
According to UNESCO’s report, The Race Against Time for Smarter Development, Brunei Darussalam and Benin are the only two countries of the 118 surveyed in 2018 that have more than 50 per cent of women comprising engineering graduates.
Countries including Algeria, Bangladesh, Morocco and Poland had more than 40 per cent of women as engineering graduates.
The research found just 23.2 per cent of engineering graduates in Australia are women (although Engineers Australia’s own research puts this figure as low as 16 per cent). UNESCO found similar numbers in the UK and USA, with women comprising 23.5 per cent and 20.4 per cent of the engineering cohort respectively.
For a full picture of the proportion of female engineering graduates across the globe, view the zoomable map below. Hover over countries in blue to view the percentage of female engineering graduates or use the search bar to find a specific country.
Note: Where no UNESCO data was available, the percentage displayed will read 0 per cent.
To unpack the differences across various countries, create spoke to local and international female engineers and STEMM experts to understand what’s driving the differences and what steps need to be taken to reach worldwide gender parity.
Having spent most of her career working in oil and gas companies, Jenny Mackay, General Manager Technical Services at EDL, has experienced first-hand how the underrepresentation of female engineering graduates impacts the industry more broadly.
“It’s not unusual for me to be the only woman in a room and it’s been like that for my whole career,” she said, crediting the leaky pipeline as a prime culprit.
“Fifty per cent of the population is female and a subset of that population in school decides to study math and science, and a subset of those women pursue a STEMM-related degree at university,” she said.
“A subset of them finish university and a subset go on to work in a STEMM-related profession. Then a subset will stick with it throughout their career. The end result is that we have a very small number of women in senior technical roles.”
There are myriad factors that can funnel women away from engineering, Mackay said, but it all starts with education.
“I have a daughter in Year 11 and we recently had a meeting with the school counsellor who didn’t even talk about engineering as a career option. I talk about it at home with my daughter because it’s my professional background, but for other students who don’t have engineering in their family experience, it might not even occur to them as an option,” she said.
“Math and science teachers and careers counsellors are critical roles at the start of that funnel.”
In the UK, women make up 23.5 per cent of engineering graduates, with the US slightly behind at 20.4 per cent.
Mackay said the similar figures in Australia, the US and the UK could be due to similarities in culture, such as acceptance of men in technical roles and women in caring roles including teaching and nursing, as well as similarities in STEMM teaching quality.
Tailoring communication to each student’s interests and career goals is key to driving these percentages up, said Penny Gibson, Engineers Australia’s UK Chapter Lead and Asset Management Manager at global mining company Anglo American.
“A lot of discussions about career paths can be very nebulous. Teachers need to talk to students and parents about the range of engineering and science degrees available,” said Gibson, who moved to the UK from Australia six years ago.
“Information is powerful and can help with the decision-making process.”
Increasing the visibility of women engineers can create pathways for younger women.
“The stories and the visibility of women engineers not only help to defy long-standing negative stereotypes but also inspire the younger generation to see themselves in these fields too,” said Sarita Menon, a US-based scientist and founder of Smore Science — a magazine dedicated to bringing engaging STEMM content to children.
“Many non-profit and for-profit organisations have made it their mission to increase female representation in STEMM and their initiatives have helped to provide more visibility, mentorship and inspiration as well as important access to resources for young girls and women.”
However, while progress has been made, more work needs to be done to empower women — especially those from underrepresented communities, such as racial and ethnic minorities — to pursue STEMM, Sarita said.
For this to happen, certain cultural norms and gender stereotypes — for example, that men are more naturally talented at math than women — need to shift.
“This especially needs to happen in computer science and engineering, which are notorious for their ‘bro-culture’. This is an essential step towards achieving true gender parity.”
The United Arab Emirates ranked more than 10 percentage points higher than Australia, at 33.3 per cent.
Atifa Arif, Portfolio Manager at Tetra Pak and Engineers Australia’s MIEAust UAE Chapter Media Lead, is confident this figure is rising.
“The economic growth that’s happening here and the focus on supporting women in STEMM is what gives me that confidence,” Arif said.
“The number of universities in the UAE that offer STEMM courses is rising. There are also a number of Australian universities with a presence in Dubai. The options for women to pursue STEMM degrees are expanding.”
Leading the pack with the highest proportion of female engineering graduates is Benin at 54.6 per cent, followed by Brunei Darussalam at 52.3 per cent.
Mackay said the promising figures in these countries could be explained by women constituting a relatively high proportion of university graduates compared to other nations.
Indeed, the UNICEF report revealed that women in Benin and Brunei comprised more than 50 per cent, and in some cases more than 60 per cent, of graduates in health and welfare, ICTs, social sciences and journalism, business, admin and law, and arts and humanities.
Mackay added that it is possible STEMM education is emphasised in primary and high schools in both countries, leading to a higher number of students pursuing tertiary education in a STEMM field.
When looking at the proportion of women in STEMM roles more broadly, a different set of three countries have more than 50 per cent of STEMM roles filled by women.
According to research from the International Labour Organisation, Georgia, Cambodia and the Dominican Republic are the only three countries with more than 50 per cent of STEMM roles filled by women.
There’s no definitive reason why these three countries have come out on top, but Gibson said it could be related to the differing challenges that newer and older industries experience.
“The only speculation I can come up with for these countries is that they could have a number of newly formed companies working on new technology,” she said.
“If a company or industry has not been pre-defined as male-dominated, maybe it has a better chance of being balanced gender-wise.”
By contrast, when mining companies try to increase female representation, they’re faced with the challenge of restructuring a hierarchy.
“It’s been a male majority for so long that many people think only men can do mining because it’s always been men doing mining,” Gibson said.
“That’s the perception and there’s a historical hold on who can do that job, whereas with newer technology you just have a clean slate.”
Another reason could be the economic factors that may stand countries with a lower socioeconomic status apart from others.
“STEMM careers are typically considered more lucrative and are associated with better-paying jobs,” Menon said.
“Even for me growing up in a middle-class family in India, pursuing a STEMM-based career path was the preferred choice, and both young girls and boys were strongly encouraged to take up engineering or medicine. A STEMM career is viewed as a way to guarantee financial stability and upward mobility on the socioeconomic ladder which incentivises everyone, including women, to get into a STEMM field.”
Closing the gender gap in engineering is a shared global responsibility. Countries can lean on, and learn from, one another in their collective mission to bolster female representation in engineering.
Gibson said multinational conferences provide a platform for leaders to share how they’ve helped women enter STEMM fields.
Sponsorship opportunities can also go a long way.
“It would be great to enable people, who may not be able to afford to go normally, the opportunity to attend these conferences,” she said. “Conferences can provide ideas and international support to women who might not have much support in their own countries.”
Embracing opportunities for international collaboration is also key.
Menon said countries can work with international organisations and brands that spotlight the contributions of women.
“Collaborating on research studies and testing initiatives and sharing best practices and policies that worked can increase the representation of women in the most underrepresented fields of STEMM like computer science and engineering.”
Sophie has produced written and multi-media content across a range of industry publications and news outlets. She loves learning what makes people tick and bringing their unique stories and experiences to life.
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