What 2020's International Women's Day Theme Means for Engineers

What the 2020 International Women's Day theme means for engineers
04 Nov, 2020

When it comes to gender diversity, the engineering profession isn’t starting from zero. Conversations about strategies to attract, retain and support women have been going on for some time now.

In past years, these conversations tended to focus on individual actions. But last International Women’s Day, the theme asked people to think more broadly about how the profession — and society — can work together to achieve more balance.

This year’s International Women’s Day theme was ‘Each for Equal’, which is about challenging stereotypes and broadening perceptions. It was also about collaboration and strength in numbers.

“I think that ‘Each for Equal’ means it’s everybody’s business, everybody has a role; to achieve equality everyone’s going to have to be involved,” said Edith Cowan University’s (ECU) Professor Cobie Rudd, who appeared as a panellist at Engineers Australia’s International Women’s Day event in Perth.

“It’s actually about everyone working together so that we have much more satisfying workplaces, and productive workplaces, because people are able to be included.”

Lina De Zilva, Group Manager, Talent, Sourcing and Diversity at Downer Australia, agreed, saying that the idea of ‘inclusion’ really speaks to this year’s theme, and is another way conversations about equality are starting to shift.

“Diversity and inclusion is really about having a workplace with a culture that is accepting of all of our people, and to ensure they can achieve and succeed in what they are doing,” she said ahead of her appearance at Engineers Australia’s International Women’s Day event in Melbourne.

“A lot of organisations focus strongly on the diversity piece, and what we want to do over the next 12 to 18 month is put an equally strong focus on the inclusion part. We really want to ingrain that in the company’s culture this year.”

Better engineering

For any organisation, practising ‘Each for Equal’ means tapping into its most valuable resource: its entire workforce.

Rudd said she found this was the case while leading ECU’s efforts to gain the Athena SWAN Bronze Accreditation, an internationally recognised accreditation for organisations that have made strides towards gender equality.

“If we were to reflect back on the single most important thing that we did, it was listening to what the staff had to say. And this was not about just listening to women — this was about developing a more inclusive culture, and men had a strong role to play,” Rudd said.

“And I guess the theme for me is about everybody doing their bit to make a difference to achieve equality.”

Dr Airlie Chapman from the University of Melbourne, who appeared on a panel at Engineers Australia’s Melbourne event alongside De Zilva, said part of this is for more engineers to become role models so future generations can see themselves in the profession.

“There is momentum towards equality, but it is a difficult pathway, and a lot of that stems from the lack of role models,” she said.

“I’ve had a lot of opportunities for people to mentor me, and it’s really important to keep propagating that.”

She added that addressing unconscious bias will be a game-changer for promoting more diversity. While benign in some instances, she said unconscious bias has more extreme manifestations for engineering due to the nature of the profession. For example, it can lead to seat belts that don’t properly protect women in severe crashes or body armour that makes women more vulnerable to certain types of injuries.

“A lot of unconscious bias goes into engineering design, and one way to mitigate that is to have a more diverse set of engineers having their eyes on a project,” she said.

Better businesses

When she talks to people about gender diversity in engineering, Chapman said she tries to stress that “if we find a solution to this problem, the profession will get better”.

“Aptitude isn’t gendered; we are losing talent with our current practices, and we need to do more to encourage the full spectrum of society to enter into a profession they will love, but that will also benefit society,” she said.

Rudd said studies have shown there are benefits for businesses that focus on diversity.

According to her, research has shown that diverse businesses have experienced improved financial performance. A McKinsey study in 2018 found that organisations in the top 25 per cent when it comes to diversity among the leadership team were also more likely to outperform on profitability by 21 per cent and value creation by 27 per cent.

Downer has been collecting and reporting its own data on its diversity and inclusion initiatives to benchmark its efforts and create more awareness about what it’s doing as an organisation, De Zilva noted. She said that measuring efforts is important because it creates accountability.

“There’s more visibility, there’s more dialogue, and we take it seriously,” she said.

Anecdotal evidence supports the success of diverse and inclusive workplaces as well. De Zilva said Downer has received positive feedback for its efforts to support women and men in the workplace through policies and programs aimed at achieving greater gender balance.

“The feedback we receive is overwhelmingly positive, certainly because of the thought-leadership and the diversity of thought that comes to the table — that’s paramount,” she said.

Rudd also speculated there will be outside pressures on the engineering profession as communities expect more sustainable and conscientious practices.

“If you look at the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals — they are very relevant to engineering,” Rudd said.

“If we actually want to build a better world for people and the planet, then engineering should be right in the middle of that. And diversity and gender equality are absolutely core threads throughout the Sustainable Development Goals. I don’t think we’re where we need to be, but I think we’ve got a groundswell that could move us in the right direction.”

A better profession

For all three, Each for Equal stands out as a reminder that a diverse engineering profession is a strong engineering profession, one that can better serve the communities it helps build. And events like International Women’s Day offer the profession an opportunity to come together and pool knowledge to reach a common goal.

“We all play a role. For us, it’s creating pathways for professionals to come together to share knowledge, share experiences — good, bad and indifferent,” De Zilva said.

“These are areas where the profession as a whole can learn from each other and continue to share that knowledge. It’s not one initiative, it’s not one strategy. It’s a compilation of many things that will help continue to grow and build the future.”

Chapman said she hopes people felt empowered by this day and walked away at least thinking differently about the part they play as engineers in building a better profession.

“Who wouldn’t want to strengthen the profession they love?” said Chapman.

“I think that’s what it comes down to; we need strategies to do it, but the future is to an end where we have a better profession.”