Gender diversity & the Melbourne School of Engineering: IWD2018

By Professor Elaine Wong, Associate Dean (Diversity and Inclusion), Melbourne School of Engineering

Growing up as the eldest of three daughters, I was fortunate enough to have parents who actively encouraged our interests in science, technology, engineering and maths.

While the outside world was sending thousands of subtle and not-so-subtle messages that science and engineering were the domain of men, my parents refused to subscribe to preconceived notions about what careers boys and girls should pursue. The three of us ended up with degrees and postgraduate degrees in engineering, finance, and medicine.

NASA ambassador and Star Trek actress Nichelle Nichols put it best when she said that “science is not a boy’s game, it’s not a girl’s game. It’s everyone’s game. It’s about where we are and where we’re going.”

The same is true of engineering. When women are systematically excluded from the game, it affects the whole field. How can we solve the complex problems that society throws at us when we don’t have a diverse cohort of people addressing these problems from every conceivable angle?

That’s why I’m excited to announce today that the Melbourne School of Engineering (MSE) at the University of Melbourne has created five continuing faculty positions for outstanding women academics in engineering and computer science.

These positions are a call to action to drive systemic change in towards gender equity and an inclusive workplace. They will help create more female role models for our students and postdoctoral researchers, diversify our thinking, and encourage participation.

Why are we doing this?

As a young PhD graduate, I was a beneficiary of one of three MSE women-only research fellowships that were explicitly aimed at increasing the number of women researchers, and in the long term leading to more women in senior academic positions. MSE had to fight for the right to offer these fellowships, being hauled into the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) in the process.

We won that fight. Throughout the three-year fellowship, I was afforded life-changing teaching and research opportunities both in Australia and in the United States of America. These opportunities led to a continuing faculty position, and 10 years later, I’m now the Associate Dean of Diversity and Inclusion, living proof that the fellowship achieved its goal. I would like to pay this forward and inspire a new generation of women academics to reach their aspirations.

When I embarked on that fellowship in 2003, only 15.5 per cent of academic staff here were women. 15 years later, that number is only at 22 per cent.

What this points to is that while we’re continuing to make progress, the fact is that the pace remains painfully slow. Our female staff numbers still lag behind our student numbers: around 30 per cent of our undergraduate and postgraduate students are women.

Diversity in any organisation is good for business. An organisation that is a collective of employees from diverse ethnic backgrounds, generations and genders will give rise to a diversity of opinions and ideas. That, in turn, leads to greater innovations, improved solutions and a stronger bottom line.

Evidence-based research shows that strong numbers of continuing women academic staff will reduce attrition rates through the academic career pipeline, and will increase the number of female undergraduate students, graduate students and postdoctoral researchers.

They are looked to as role models, mentors, and peer-mentors.

This isn’t just about bringing women in through the front door. MSE is committed not just to diversity, but also inclusion. Retention studies have found that women are more likely than men to cite family-related issues as reasons for leaving careers. Academia is no exception.

Read more about the five new lecturer positions for women in engineering and computer science.