By UNSW Water Research Laboratory Senior Engineer, Alice Harrison, in acknowledgement of International Women in Engineering Day.

When I was six, I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. I remember writing down scientist, but the boy sitting next to me laughed. I rubbed it out and changed it to teacher. I was embarrassed.

These days I call myself an engineer, but I think my six-year-old self would still be pretty happy with what I’ve ended up doing. There is probably a little less mixing of wild coloured chemicals than I had hoped, although I even get to do a bit of that - I think six-year-old me would have loved the experience of turning the ocean red in the name of science.

 Through my work I have had such a broad range of experiences, from fieldwork in pristine bushland or trudging through degraded swamps on coastal floodplains to presenting at conferences and seminars to some of the best engineering minds in the country.

Using special dyes improves our understanding of contaminant transport. It also has the unfortunate side effect of looking like you’ve harpooned a whale (don’t worry, we didn’t!)

As a woman in engineering, I still face some of the same challenges I did when I was six.
Smile amid the deluge

Alice Harrison

Senior Project Engineer

However, as a woman in engineering, I still face some of the same challenges I did when I was six. I spend a lot of time out in the field working with the community and I’ve lost count at the number of times that people have laughed when I’ve said I’m an engineer. I have also learnt a lot since I was six. I now know I don’t need to hide who I am or what I want to be.

I think there is generational change occurring in attitudes towards women in STEM and I am lucky to work amongst colleagues (mostly male, but with some amazing women as well) who value me and my input. In the circles I work in, there is a genuine desire for more representation of women in engineering, and it feels like a goal we are working (sometimes slowly) collectively towards.

According to a report by the Australian Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources [i], fathers are more than twice as likely (47%) to be employed in a STEM dominated field than mothers (20%). This same trend follows women in STEM throughout their career. The engineering workforce in Australia is only 12% women [ii]. Six years into my professional career, which is likely to last 50 years, I’m already aware of how few women are in positions more senior than my own (and I am not that senior). That’s not to say there aren’t any, and I have a number of women that I know (both personally and from a far), that have taken higher level positions who I think are amazing. However, statistically speaking, it is far more likely that I, as a female engineer, will leave the engineering industry before I am 40, rather than making into a management position myself [iii].

Now, I don’t see statistics as a prediction of the future, but the lack of female role models in the industry has had an unexpectedly significant impact on my ability to imagine myself in those roles, particularly if I make the decision to stay in engineering and also have a family. I am bolstered by the number of smart, motivated, young female engineering graduates I have met in my short tenure in the industry, but I also feel the pressure of being their role model and I am aware of how my own decisions may impact them.

I’m not a mother. The mothers I have worked with are amongst the most talented and dedicated people I have met, yet many have struggled coming back to work, battling to find the delicate balance between producing high quality work on deadline and the constant pressures of being a primary career to a small human. To those women, I want you to know I admire you. And to their managers, I want you to know that these women are needed in our industry.

The decisions we make to improve gender diversity today, including the promotion of work-life balance and flexible working (for everyone, men included), are not only important for the women in engineering today, but also the generations to come.