Engineering Heroes is turning its usual program on its head. We are sharing with you a podcast series from the ANU CECS, called Reimagine STEM.
Each episode in the series will delve into some key engineering hot topics. Through the presentation of rich and deep interviews this episode will present the exciting innovations which are occurring in engineering education.
Reimagine STEM podcast – From diversity STEMS brilliance
[CC] The only encouragement I think I did receive was from my own mother saying that if you want to do it, go do it. Basically that was it, because I’m a First Nations black woman in tech and there’s not many of us. So I’ve just basically been making it up this entire time.
[Elanor] Until such time as we can actually work out ways where it’s not just male, pale, stale, urban and middle class, we’re never really going to address all of those issues. And that’s partly about talking about what happens after university and getting out of the way of people’s field of view instead of just saying, ‘hey, come to university’. It’s about what your life will be like after that. And also just clearing away the practical barriers which are largely insurmountable unless you happen to be male, pale, stale, urban and middle class.
[Kiara] There’s no getting around the fact that engineering is a male-dominated discipline, but you might be shocked to hear that over the past decade, so many of the bare statistics of gender balance haven’t improved. The numbers have stagnated and they’re remaining low. Hello, and this is Reimagine STEM, the podcast of the ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science. It was recorded in 2019 at the CoDesign Culture Lab on Ngunnawal and Ngambri Land, to whose Elders past, present and emerging we pay our respects. Our goal is to explore the key themes and big ideas for our collective STEM futures.
I’m Kiara Bruggeman. I’m a biomedical engineer and in today’s episode we’re dipping into a big and ongoing conversation with some powerful and determined women in STEM. Oh, and one proactive bloke. They’re all taking a good, hard look at where some of the valiant efforts to redress the imbalance are going wrong and some ideas about what to do to improve things and increase the understanding of why this issue is important for our field, and not just for PR.
[Francesca] I think for me, I’ve made the decision that as long as I’m in STEM, I can’t not do anything about it. It’s just plain wrong where we are right now. And we’ve continued to do that because not enough people have stood up and said, ‘hey, this is not right, we need to fix this.’ The people that have, they’ve since left. I think also our industry needs to do a little bit of self-reflection about why maybe a lot of women are leaving as well.
[Kiara] Now, women can be a sort of canary in the coal mine here, an indicator for diversity in general. If our discipline isn’t attracting and keeping women, we’re certainly not attracting and keeping other diverse groups that we really do need. I’ll hit you with the stats shortly. But though the numbers are really quite bad, our guests are positive about why this matters and what we need to do next to fix things up. Let’s meet the talent. First of all, sociologist Cathy Ayres:
[Cathy] Thank you very much for having me Kiara, I’m the diversity and inclusion officer at the ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science.
[CC] So, hey, I’m CC
[Kiara] That’s Celeste Carnegie.
[CC] I’m a Birrigubba South Sea Islander woman from Far NorthQueensland. And I live on Gadigal Country in Sydney. And I’ve been there for five years now. I’m in the tech space, I’ve been there for about three years. And I’m really passionate about digital technologies in our communities with First Nations women and young people, but also capability building.
[Elanor] My name is Elanor Huntington, I’m the Dean of the ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science.
[Euan] Hi, I’m Euan Lindsay. I’m the foundation Professor of engineering at Charles Sturt University and the Head of School there at CSU engineering. And I think it’s absolutely mad that our profession doesn’t represent the society we serve. And the sooner we get rid of the barriers that keep women out, the better.
[Francesca] Hi, I’m Francesca Maclean and I’m a senior consultant at Arup.
[Emily] Hi, I’m Emily Gentilini and I’m a graduate engineer at Arup.
[Kiara] Emily and Francesca founded Fifty/50 at ANU, striving to close the gender gap in STEM in a number of ways.
So, ok, let’s take a look at the stats. Engineers Australia tells us that in the 10 years up to 2016, the good news was that the number of qualified women in engineering doubled to 45,000. But as a proportion of the workforce, the increase only improved by three points to just under 14 per cent. So not exactly stellar. And, in large part, that growth was through skilled migration. These are just the women who qualified as engineers. In terms of actually taking that education and going on to employment, less than nine per cent of engineers are Australian-born women. A truly dispiriting figure. They’re doing the degree and then they’re leaving. Elanor Huntington:
[Elanor] If you go into the professions in the UK, young women drop out of being a professional engineer in their first two years at twice the rate as young men. And if you look at some of the surveys that they’ve done in the UK in particular, then it’s usually young women and people who are not white, who have higher per centage of reportage of not getting good career opportunities, not being taken seriously, that sort of stuff. So that’s not about structural impediments anymore, that’s about cultural and climate issues. And so that’s one of the things that a lot of companies and a lot of universities are now starting to turn their attention to, because they have finally worked out that going hard to recruit a more diverse cohort and then creating an environment where they just leave really quickly is not such a great idea. And so we’ve got some really, really energetic student groups here at the university who have been doing some amazing things. So the Fifty/50 group is one specific example where they run mentoring programs, and the more you can get to peer mentoring, the better it is.
[Cathy] So we might say, why aren’t women entering engineering at higher rates? Or a really crucial question that we can ask is why are they leaving? And there’s multiple different ways you can answer that.
[Euan] What I find is that the young women who would make great engineers will also make great physiotherapists. They will make great veterinary scientists. They can do whatever they turn their minds to. And so they make a rational choice that if the way an engineering degree is sold to them is to become an engineer is to lose this identity you have now, is to overwrite it with a technocrat maths nerd identity, not to expand it and supplement it with an engineer identity, then they’re not going to risk that overwriting. They’re going to take it to another profession where they can say, ‘I can still be a woman and a physiotherapist, whereas I have to become a middle-aged white guy with a beard if I want to be an engineer’.
[Cathy]I feel sad about it. I do. I feel like there’s this wealth of lived experience in this wealth of creativity that is either not invited into that fold in the first place or if we’re being honest, get squeezed out of that fold. And I think that is to the downfall of everybody, right. It’s not just, oh that’s sad for those women because they now have to find another profession. It’s sad because none of us benefit from that enormous creative potential that comes through. And not not just women, you know, we can talk about this sort of generally as an element of diversity. We all move through the world differently and we all think about things differently. And I see the great thing about engineering and computing is you’re building technology for people and for societies.And if you don’t have everyone involved in those really sort of primary discussions about design or research directions, then you’re not actually doing your job in terms of developing tech that will help [make that] possible.
[Francesca] Look, you can start off with the social justice case of like: I’m sorry, we’re 51 per cent of the population, it is ridiculous that only 12 per cent of professional engineers are women. And if you think that, then we move to the business case of we all know by now that more diverse teams are better at problem solving, creativity, innovation, so it also makes good business sense. I think we also then need to look at the broader social context of the gender pay gap in Australia. We’re looking at that women over 55 are the fastest growing homeless population because, that women retire with 40 per cent less superannuation than men. If we are excluding women from a profession that is typically higher paying and has a lot of potential for growth in the future, we’re just going to be exacerbating the social issues that we see now.
[Kiara] It’s important to consider and communicate why women and other diverse groups must become a ubiquitous part of STEM workplaces. We as engineers are used to focussing in intense detail on small aspects of a problem and finding an absolute ideal solution. So in big picture thinking, what’s wrong with that ‘may the best man win approach’? Cathy Ayres:
[Cathy] Yes, so this is the meritocracy argument, right. And this is what you come up against. You might be having a conversation with someone and the idea of, say, a women’s only job for a lecturer gets advertised and a reaction to that might be, ‘oh but you want the best person in the job’. And so there’s a few assumptions in that response, the first being the best person in that job couldn’t possibly be a woman, right. So underlying these kind of banal-sounding responses that people have to these ideas is actually these really ingrained assumptions about what merit looks like. And because of the history of academia, merit has been modelled on the people who have kind of built it up, right. So it’s predominantly geared towards people who have a lot of time, a lot of flexibility, a lot of mobility. So increasingly, there’s an expectation to get into academia that you will have moved around a lot. So the pathway as you might do your PhD at ANU and then you have to go overseas for a postdoc in order to get an ongoing position. That’s a really familiar story for people. Well, what happens if you’ve got two school-aged kids or what happens if you’ve got aging parents who you really need to care for? And men do that caring work, but predominantly we know that that falls to women. There’s a lot of research out there saying that. And those are really big challenges that the industry is increasingly not compatible with a lot of people’s lives, but the people whose lives it is compatible with tend to be men, basically.
[Kiara] Being a little bit of a devil’s advocate, there are some areas of engineering that do attract more women. So would it be maybe easiest, most efficient to just use those to counterbalance the other areas?
[Cathy] No. Case closed.
[Cathy] It’s an interesting point that there are more women represented in particular fields. So half of biomedical engineers are women in Australia – go Kiara and your ilk! 25 per cent of mining and chemical engineers are women. Okay, that’s all right. 15.4 per cent of civil engineers.Okay, that’s getting pretty bad. And then less than 10 per cent of graduates in aerospace, electrical and electronic and mechanical engineering are women. So those numbers a really, really varied. But you have to think about the size of those branches, too. So the largest of those, which is civil engineering, has one of the lower figures. So, no, mathematically it doesn’t balance out, but also sort of ethically, it doesn’t balance out. If I’m a woman and I’m really interested in becoming an aerospace engineer and someone says, ‘well there’s more ladies in biochemical, so you should go into that, or biomedical, you should go into that’. You know, what message does that send? Not fantastic.
[Kiara] So looking at these other fields, where is the problem? Why aren’t there more women in engineering and computer science?
[Cathy] I mean, there is so many theories. So there’s reputation. I think reputation is a big one, but not the only. So there’s a lot of articles around talking about how engineering is not a welcoming workplace for women. And it’s great that that conversation is happening, but you can think, you know, imagine you’re a 17 year old and you’re interested in it, and then you hearing all this messaging that, you know, it’s maybe not going to be the happiest place for me, that might make you re-evaluate your decisions. From a sort of social- scientific point of view too, there a major gender stereotypes that are really playing into this.
[Kiara] Let’s drill a little deeper. What are the practical outcomes when we don’t have enough diversity in our disciplines?
[Cathy] So here’s a classic example. So I said I used to live in Melbourne and so I used to catch a lot of trains and a lot of trams. And on a lot of those trains and trams, the only hand-hold that’s available to you is designed for like a 6 foot 1 tall person. And I am not 6 foot 1. I’m in fact, very much shorter than that. So you’ll be on that train and you can see it happening, you can. I encourage everyone to have a look. Much, much higher proportion of men are able to reach handholds, steady themselves, be safer in that environment. And you kind of think, well, that’s a fairly big design flaw when half the population riding these death traps made of metal can’t steady themselves. It’s, that’s one really small example where I feel like maybe having a little bit more female input or maybe even just the acknowledgement that there’s really different bodies in the world and they have different requirements. And there’s some really great research on this in what we call the mobilities field in sociology is how differently men and women travel, how differently they use public transport. So a lot of women being sort of primary caretakers in the family or in the home have lots more errands to run. So a lot of public transport journeys are set up with an end-to-end journey in mind. So I’m going from work to home. And then the apps that you use are telling you how to do that in the fastest, most efficient way, right. But what if you have to go from work, pick up the groceries, drop off some documents at the doctor’s and go pick your child up at school and then get home? It’s a really different story. And that does affect women much, much more because they do tend to take on more of that sort of care.
[Elanor] So one of the most interesting things to think about is imagination, and the idea that when you want to imagine a world.Imagine the world that you want to live in, the world that you want to create. Then your imagination is shaped by your personal experiences, your perspective, your viewpoint, the influences that you’ve had. And I’ll be honest, the world that we live in at the moment has been imagined by a very particular collection of people over the last 20 to 120 years. And I’m not entirely convinced that that is a direction of travel that we wish to continue. And so if we are, engineers and computer scientists these days in particular, are responsible for making a lot of the world that we live in and are going to continue to do so for quite some time. So if these are the people who are imagining the world that we’re all going to live in, then we need a much more diverse range of imaginations and a much different group of people thinking about what that’s going to look like and then having the skills necessary to actually bring it about.
[Kiara] It goes without saying that technical roles must be as accessible to women as to men. But there should also be many avenues into STEM. You don’t have to be a practising engineer or computer scientist. There are many research, creative support, education, advocacy and liaison roles available. If STEM opens its doors to other disciplines as a matter of course, then specialisms could develop in social science, design or anthropology to name a few. But listening to women like STEM communicator and facilitator Celeste Carnegie helps demonstrate how far away our discipline is from addressing fundamental accessibility, and being open to any kind of difference.
[CC] As a kid, it was always just about being my mother’s in-house IT officer. It also was always my job to make sure things worked or to play around with things and to hack at things that if Mum bought home a new appliance or DVD player or whatever it may have been. I was always the one putting it together and that was just as a little kid. So she just used to let me go. But she brought home a couple of digital literacy CDs one day and we had a little computer. So I plugged it in was all just really fun, cool ways of learning, in ways that I didn’t really do well at school in learning, especially with maths. That was my one subject which I hated. So, you know, when she brought home these CDs and they have these different colours, all these different games, but I was still doing maths. That was fun. That’s where I think it started. But also, you know, my father was a real sci-fi nerd. From Star Trek, Stargate, Star Wars, you know, he loved all of them. So it was a lot of just fantasy and imagination.
[Kiara] Celeste found her own way fiddling around with this and that. And when no pathway to tech became clear, she became a competitive netball player during her 20s. But the desire to engage with tech never went away.
[CC] The only encouragement I think I did receive was from my own mother saying that if you want to do it, go do it. I’m a First Nations black woman in tech and there’s not many of us. And so I actually haven’t had any mentors or any role models coming through this career pathway for myself. So I’ve just basically been making it up this entire time.
[Kiara] Then Celeste took up an opportunity to join the pilot program for a Bachelor of Technology and Innovation degree.
[CC] So I thought it’d be cool. I was a part of the first cohort, which was really interesting. It was like a very small class. It was like 30 of us at most, so it was an experience. I did learn a lot from that degree, but almost in a ‘not-what-to-do’ sort of way.
So I ended up withdrawing from the course. I didn’t finish it. And that was mostly because I, I just felt so isolated. And because it was a pilot degree, I thought that it would be a chance to teach a curriculum that could really change people’s perspectives. But I just came to realise that innovation means quite a lot of things to different people. And that’s not always one that’s shared in, or it’s a lot of non-innovative people preaching innovation, which doesn’t work.
[Kiara] How many girls were in this program? Out of the whole class?
[CC] It was like five of us out of out of the whole class, out of the 30. So it’s just me, five other girls and all these white guys. It was just really interesting to see what they decided to teach and how they decided to teach it. One class we had was on empathy was interesting because they had this fella come in and he had been working in impoverished communities in India and he came in to speak about what empathy meant. And I was just sitting there like: well, youse have to learn about empathy and what this means? And especially because they were teaching it in a workplace context. And I was like, well, if that doesn’t translate over into your personal life, then that doesn’t mean a thing. Having me, this First Nations woman do this empathy workshop, I just felt so weirded out by it because I was born empathetic. I was born into a position where I have to empathise with a whole lot of people at the same time. So you do actually need to learn about empathy. You actually do, considering, you know, the climate within our country and globally. This is something you do actually have to learn. And I was like, I can’t justify the debt and be here with you to learn it because I don’t actually have to.
[Kiara] Francesca Maclean also struggled feeling like an outsider who just didn’t fit in.
[Francesca] My experience was really different because I moved to ANU at 17, from Darwin. So just even that cultural shift moving from Darwin to Canberra. I think that was something I just did not even consider it would be an issue. I think it was part of my naivety, but also I think really reflective of the different worlds that exist. So I really struggled and I thought for about three years that the reason why I didn’t fit in and wasn’t really having a good time was because I was from Darwin and I had slang words that no one understood and so I had to stop saying them. I actually really had to change how I was. And then I sort of clicked that ‘oh yeah, I’m from Darwin, but I’m also a woman from Darwin’. Then it sort of, that all started to make sense.The reason why I was in tutorials and labs and I couldn’t really get help from anyone because no one would look me in the eye, like pretty basic things like that. To being told that I only got an HD on an assignment because the lecturer felt sorry for me because I was a woman and the lecturer was a woman. And I think that characterises what we call was death by a thousand cuts.
[Kiara] When you talk about it now, looking back, it’s obvious you also think it is horrible. Did you feel that way at the time? You aware then this is wrong or is it only kind of in hindsight?
[Francesca] I think death by a thousand cuts is normalised for women in STEM, and I think that’s something that I’d really like us to start challenging. We accept it as, ‘oh, of course that’s going to happen, of course people are going to doubt your abilities and credit it to your gender, or discredited because of your gender’. It wasn’t until, you know, I was waiting for a lab experiment in my PhD and I was on a blog and I started reading about merit and metrics and how that plays out in academia and how it’s really gendered. And then it sort of, the glass shattered for me.
[Kiara] So many factors go into keeping women away from engineering and computer science. Some would appear to be minor, but put them together, you start to see a frustrating roadmap, including the one way systems, the blockages, the about turns.
For example, Euan Lindsay talks about one woman student with a lecturer who started every class with:
[Euan]‘Lady and gentleman’ because she was the only woman in the class. And he honestly thought he was doing the right thing by being polite. But in fact, he commenced it with an attendance check on her, because if she wasn’t there, he just went, ‘Oh, gentlemen’. And so if there’s one of you, you do that, if you’re half and half, you don’t even, ‘ladies and gentlemen, good morning’. You don’t think to single them out. Now there’s a power dynamic question of how do you not call it out? Why did all of the men in the room go: ‘we know it upsets her. Let’s not say anything’. So I think there’s a slow sort of, that glacial progression of people want to help. They believe this is the right answer. I don’t know any colleagues going ‘geez, we really gotta get rid of these women, they’re spoiling it. Let’s get rid of them’. They don’t necessarily conceptualise it in a way that will be effective. They want to help. They don’t want to be part of the problem. In a more broader sense, you don’t always get to be the one pushed out the front of the cameras, so it looks like we have women in the program. You don’t get to be the woman who has to be on the selection committee because we need gender balance, like those duties can be distributed. And so that otherness that can be such a push to push people away, can repel them out of the profession, even if they would make great engineers. And by and large, they do, because the ones that survive all of this repulsion are the ones who are going to be excellent, the ones who would make good engineers have other options and go elsewhere.
[Kiara] So we have the statistics, but do we know what’s going on to drive them? Cathy Ayres:
[Cathy] What we really need to be working on is paying attention to the qualitative. So when someone leaves this industry, we should be asking them why. We should be saying:‘what’s your experience been? What is it exactly that has motivated you to leave?’ And it could be pull factors. It could be a fantastic opportunity and something else they’re interested [in]. But a lot of the time it’s not. A lot of the time it’s push factors. That means that we’re losing a great deal of potential in this industry.
[Euan] There’s broader things that are much more nebulous to count. Like, would I let my daughter study here? That’s a much harder kind of question to ask. And I think those are the pieces, that you’ve got to have that qualitative piece around the culture as well as just the numbers, because there are things you can do to gain the numbers.
[Kiara] So these issues are not new. They’ve been around for a while and a lot of good, great women engineers and computer sciences have been calling them out. Is the reason we’re not seeing change down to, as you mentioned, that lecturer who was never told that what he was doing was not helping? Are we not calling it out enough? Why aren’t we seeing the progress we want to see?
[Euan] Well, one of the things that I do note is people keep starting things, and I’m not sure that works. I’m probably going to scorch a lot of bridges here, but there are something like 170 different ‘girls in STEM’ programs that get funding from the Federal Government. And I do wonder if it is that hit-and-run, small-impact, ‘I inspired that girl to become a young woman in engineering, I’ve moved her needle’. Rather than a systemic question around how do we keep young women on the tightrope to choose the subjects in Year 9 that will take them, where they haven’t already fallen off the tightrope when they realise they should become engineers?
[CC] Because people don’t wanna give up power. Don’t give up the power. The thing is, is that the older I’ve gotten and the more experience I’ve had in the tech industry, the more I realise just how much white men claim the space. And they claim the space because they think they own it. And historically, that’s something white men have been doing for hundreds and hundreds of years. So I think we as a tech community aren’t addressing it. Or we are, but it’s very surface level. And that’s when you hear people start throwing out diversity and inclusive, you know, throwing around those types of terms, but no one actually wants to act upon it. I read a newspaper article the other day, might have been the Sydney Morning Herald, I can’t remember where it was, but just caught my eye because it was talking about inclusion fatigue.
[Kiara] Oh, and what’s that?
[CC] I know. I was like, what? And basically what they’re saying is that people are starting to get inclusion fatigue because they’re making attempts at becoming more inclusive and diverse, but they’re failing at it and then they getting tired. So what that told me was, wait, having to include others is making you fatigued, you’re getting fatigued over that, including me is tiring you? That was just a real, that was a real hard article to read because I was like, wow. But I think that when it comes to those types of things, everything should be for us and by us. Everything should be Indigenous-led. And it’s not non-Indigenous people can’t help, but it really should just be on the back end.
[Kiara] Ownership is important.
[CC] It’s very important, especially when you consider our cultural knowledge and our intellectual property.
[Kiara] Apart from having programs led by women and those from diverse communities, when we’re looking for role models for potential solutions, where should we turn? Actually, Engineers Australia points out that the overall figures in Australia are elevated because women make up a higher proportion of the intake of international students.
[Cathy] What I’ve heard from our female Sri Lankan students is one of the big elements of culture shock that they experience here is that it’s really male dominated. In one of our major source universities, their computer science graduates are about on par in terms of gender. So I don’t know, I think we should probably ask some of those students, what they what they think is happening, that sort of addressing the problem. Looking at the differences between engineering and computer science in Australia vs. a country like Sri Lanka, that’s precisely the work that sociologists do.
[Francesa] So I was actually in Jakarta last year working with the embassy on exactly this women in STEM issue and they quite happily raised that I think Indonesia has a lot more women studying in STEM than Australia does, so our ambassador was a little bit sheepish at the time.I think it’s really interesting and there are some studies that do show that in, I guess what people would consider more progressive cultures, women actually don’t participate in STEM as highly as cultures that we might consider as not as progressive.
[Kiara] There is clearly more to discover in this arena now. Emily Gentilini and Francesca Maclean founded Fifty/50 at ANU in 2015. It’s a student-led organisation promoting gender equity in STEM and part of their offering is a career development program.
[Emily] So we recognised that later in the degree, the focus is a little bit different. Maybe you’ve established some networks, maybe you still haven’t. And that you were really trying to understand what’s next: what does an engineering graduate do? What are the skills I need? And so we formulated a program that was partly mentorship-based, but really skilldevelopmentbased and again, all genders, although of course we got more women than men. And we partnered a lot with industry for that, too, which was really fantastic to get them in and run those workshops and also over a long period of time. So not just a one-off workshop, but a whole program designed with the gender lens, but maybe a bit of a sneaky gender lens, do it underneath, so that we could get people engaged. And we saw that a lot of people engaged with us through that, that wouldn’t have engaged in a gender thing otherwise. And that was, I think, quite critical to our success, as was the cultural audit that we initiated in the College. So that was where we got some external consultants in to actually do a formal assessment of the culture within the College. And that’s been really important for creating those more systemic changes, getting staff in the College whose job it is to worry about that sort of thing and really highlighting what the issues that needed to be addressed were to me.
[Elanor] So for me, one of the things that I’ve been consciously working on this year has been acknowledging my privilege as well. So I’m intersectional, but I’m intersectional both in terms of disadvantage and advantage. And so for me, it’s acknowledging my privilege and then using it as a voice for all the people without attempting to silence their voices, as well as an interesting new journey for me. And I’ll say that I’ve had the privilege of working in the last couple of years with a bunch of remarkable men who do genuinely want to make this a better place. And not just our university, not just our part of our university, but actually society writ large. And that’s a remarkable privilege. And to see them stepping up and really advocating for a range of issues while not minimising themselves, has been a genuine joy. One of the most interesting things that I’m working on at the moment is saying, okay, well, this isn’t just about getting more women, it’s actually about getting the kind of men that women will want to work with as well.
[Kiara] And advice for young women engineers, don’t let yourself be railroaded into being the note taker, the event planner, the general organiser, just because your male counterparts can’t manage those tasks as well. Be strategic in when you say yes. And more importantly, when to say no. Euan Lindsay has a straightforward and practical way of circumventing this in the classroom, with a policy of ensuring that all student groups contain more than one woman.
[Euan] That’s a secret, and my student engineers aren’t supposed to know. But anyway, stop listening now, guys. Well done. It comes down to that, within a microcosm, our student engineers at Charles Sturt work in teams of four on the challenges they do face-to-face. And so if you have two women and two men, you have that parity. They’re not the women, they’re just colleagues. Whereas if there’s one woman, she’s the woman. The reality is, we over-support them as a preventative measure, but a stereotype, because it is so common that she’s the one who takes the notes. She’s the one who moves into that managerial role, and the men see it as their role to solve the equations. And partly that’s because, they’re comfortable doing that. She’s also comfortable solving the equations, because she’s also good at mathematics, but she’s the only one actually comfortable writing the notes. So when you’re deciding who does what, as the only person for whom this isn’t a major hardship. This is a massive stereotype, but if it happens so often that it’s correlation not causal, but it’s functionally causal. And so when we have so few women in our profession, why would you take the risk? If you have an all-male team, that’s fine, next session we’ll shuffle you up and you’ve got two women in your team. And so your experience is then with women who aren’t carrying the baggage of being the woman. Your experience is just with good technical engineers, who, there’s not enough design to isolate two partners out of it, so it gets spread around. And so they’re able to establish an identity other than ‘the woman’. They’re able to establish idea of being a student engineer, who also happens to be a woman. Then when you mix the teams up and they move forwards, means they’ve got that technical credibility. They haven’t been pigeonholed because they’ve been expected to do everything that the other colleagues are supposed to do.
[Elanor] I’ve learnt to be strategic and I’ve learnt to say no. And the thing that has guided that decision making for me is, do I think I’ve got enough time and enough skills to be able to do the job okay, and also am I still learning something? So as a woman in engineering, I’m used to it. I spent most of my career being the only woman in the department. Often the only woman in the room. And even in the olden days when I was relatively young, selection committees and promotion committees always needed at least some gender representation. So I got put on a whole bunch of appointment committees and promotion committees very early on in my career. I consider that an opportunity. I learned a lot about what people are looking for in these processes and I also learned a lot about how you go about making good hires. And I also learned a lot about where the university was going. And it was only after I had stopped learning because I had done it so much, that I started saying no to those things. And I’ve learnt over the years to get better at being clear about what would actually make it work and be successful. And these days, the more senior I am, I’m also very conscious about trying to pass on what I consider to be opportunities to people and give a little bit of coaching about whether or not I think it’s genuinely an opportunity or whether I think it’s just yet another piece of work that needs to be done to keep the machinery going.
[Kiara] This is the one that always buzzes around my mind whenever I see you out and about doing all sorts of stuff, very active. How do you pursue a career of being, you know, ‘I want to go be a woman in STEM, I want to be a successful one, as I am assuming I have the skills and everything required’, just achieving the balance of not giving up the woman part of being a woman in STEM. I find so many of my interests outside of work don’t mesh very well with my role as an engineer. And I love STEM, I do, but I also love all these other things. And it seems like you’d have to give all of yourself to being a Dean.
[Elanor] Yeah, good question. There’s actually two parts to that, right? There’s one of which, which is being your whole self and bringing your whole self to your work environment. And the other is, how do you find enough time and energy to actually make sure that you understand your whole self and can fully inhabit that? They’re two slightly different things, so one of which is about an inclusive environment where you can actually bring your whole self to your workplace. So to, to depersonalise it for a second, there is research that says that people who work in a particular workplace and who are consciously and obviously and visibly a minority usually make one of two choices. They either choose to dress and behave in a manner that allows them to fit in and try to be a little bit invisible, or they just lean into it and say, ‘right, I’m different, I’m not going to be able to kid anyone about that, so I’m just gonna lean completely into it’. In that context I have always assumed, and I’ve been told many times that I’m wrong about this, but I’ve always assumed that I just tend to blend into the background anyway. And so I have for years chosen to dress in a particular manner that I consider to be blending into the background and just kind of inhabit that. I have discovered that it doesn’t matter what I do, I seem not to be able to do that, so whatever. I have over the years been more more comfortable about just, in being me at work. There are, of course, boundaries. And particularly the more senior you get, the more you’ve got to keep some part of yourself to yourself. Over the years, I’ve had surges and troughs of how much time I actually spend working in terms of, you know, people talk about work life balance or whatever you want to call it. And at the moment, I’m spending more time working than I have ever before. But that peaks and troughs. The other thing that I’ve learnt over the years is that as I’ve taken on different jobs, the way that I work and the way that I manage my time, and the way that I manage my own physical and mental health has had to adapt over the years. And like I said, that four-year window when I was a Head of School was genuinely transformative to me and I’m not the same person that I was at the start of that. And that’s okay. Life is a journey. You just adapt as you go. And I’m actually quite happy with the person I am now compared to the person I was then. I don’t dislike the person I was then, I’m just different.
[Kiara] Alongside individual considerations and community support structures, many departments are having a good long look at themselves to see why it is that women like Celeste Carnegie are not being found and brought into the fold. Elanor Huntington:
[Elanor] If you look at the demography of people who end up going into our types of degrees and professions, people often talk about male, pale, and stale. But actually we’re also incredibly urban and incredibly middle class. We just are. And there’s a range of really interesting reasons for that, some of which are historic and actually relatively recent. So just talking about gender, it’s the first and that’s the most obvious one, and it’s one that is incredibly visible. And people have been working on it and talking about it for quite some time. And we’ve gently drifted upwards, but not exactly shifted the needle. But there are a whole bunch of other reasons and dimensions as well. So as you say, there’s people who come from regional or remote backgrounds. There are people who come from a socially disadvantaged backgrounds. In Australia, of course, we need to be talking about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participation. And there are, of course, a huge range of people who come, whose families were our first generation immigrants to Australia as well. And until such time as we can actually work out ways where it’s not just male, pale, stale, urban and middle class, we’re never really going to address all of those issues. And that’s partly about talking about what happens after university and getting out of the way of people’s field of view. Instead of just saying, ‘hey, come to university’, it’s about what your life will be like after that. And also just clearing away the practical barriers, which are large and insurmountable unless you happen to be male, pale, stale, urban and middle class.
[CC] This is what people in this industry need to understand, is that we as First Nations people have a lot going on. We have so much going on in our communities, so that when things are shoved in our face or when people are telling us what we need to do and how to do it, it’s frustrating because there’s so many layers that we have to smash through to get to that point. Right now, I have to be doing this. I have to be getting more people and creating pathways for Mob, because I actually don’t have a choice to do anything else, because there’s not a lot of us here doing it.
[Kiara] And it is frustrating when women in STEM like Celeste and Elanor and Francesca and Emily have to spend a significant portion of their time not practising their discipline, but advocating instead.
[Francesca] I think it’s a really interesting dynamic when we rely on women in STEM to champion gender equity. I’ve been in industry now for two and a half, almost three years. And it’s a really hard balance of, I’m trying to dismantle this system that I also have to try and succeed in. So then I also have a bigger platform to then dismantle it more, and so that’s a really hard thing to reconcile. You have to figure out how much you’re going to compromise in terms of working within this structure and system that is there, and how that might align or not align with your values. I think also organisations who do rely on the significant emotional labour of women to do this work need to incorporate it into our performance reviews. Because while I might spend a lot of time travelling and speaking and advising and mentoring people in organisations, my male peers are just doing their job. Nine‘til five. We are not comparing the same, but we go up against the same performance framework. So I think we need to assess, start valuing this work within organisations if you want people like Em and myself to continue it. I think for me I’ve made the decision that as long as I’m in STEM, I can’t not do anything about it. It’s just plain wrong where we are right now. And we’ve continued to do that because not enough people have stood up and said, ‘hey, this is not right. We need to fix this’. The people that have, they’ve since left. So I think also our industry needs to do a little bit of self-reflection about why maybe a lot of women are leaving as well.
[Kiara] And you mentioned that when you got into this as a career, it was very much the engagement. So it was when it started being about other people as well. So is that supporting other women in tech quite important to you?
[CC] Yeah, it is, because it gets lonely out here. I want to be able to rock up into this space and into this industry with other women, specifically First Nations women or else I’m just by myself. And no one wants that. That’s boring. You know, it’s tech, is supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to be innovative. It’s supposed to be constantly adapting. And if I can’t do that with my own Mob, then I don’t want to do it.