Coming from a family of engineers, Associate Professor Neda Aboutorab decided to follow in their footsteps at an early age.

“Growing up, I was curious about how things worked, to the extent that I had a small toolbox with screwdrivers and other basic tools, and I would disassemble and attempt to repair broken items,” Dr Aboutorab recalls.

Today, she is the acting head of school for the UNSW Canberra School of Engineering and Technology and leads a program aimed at promoting engineering as a career path for young women.

After deciding to pursue engineering during high school, Dr Aboutorab developed a passion for electrical engineering and completed her undergraduate degree, Masters and PhD.

“At school, I was fascinated by maths and physics and witnessing the practical application of these subjects in the daily work of the engineers around me, so I decided to pursue an engineering degree,” Dr Aboutorab says.

“I think what drew me to academia was my enthusiasm to continue learning and my passion for teaching.

“Academia offers a unique environment where one can continue learning and has the opportunity to share it with others, collaborate, and also to make a difference by teaching the next generation of people in the field.”

It’s this last point, about teaching the next generation, where Dr Aboutorab’s real passion comes to the fore. As the co-chair of the Young Women in Engineering (YoWIE) program, Dr Aboutorab oversees an innovative program that gives high school-aged girls a chance to explore many different types of engineering and hopefully encourage them into the profession.

Women are significantly under-represented in engineering across most of the world, including in Australia, where women make up only 13 per cent of the workforce.

“During my undergraduate studies, my cohort in electrical engineering included a few other girls. I think the ratio of female to male students was around 1:8, which initially felt a bit overwhelming,” Dr Aboutorab recalls.

“However, as I started doing some of my engineering subjects and gaining some understanding of the field, it became more evident to me that engineering is a career for anyone.

“We are increasingly cognisant of the advantages of a more gender-diverse workforce.

“These benefits extend beyond just equity and equal opportunity; it is also about innovation and productivity. The importance of fresh perspectives that arise from diversity, be it in terms of gender, culture, background, or other lenses, contributes significantly to very positive outcomes for everyone.

“In YoWIE, we want to break down some of the incorrect perceptions that discourage high school girls from pursuing engineering and technology careers. We share our passion for engineering with girls, build their confidence and hopefully inspire them to consider making it a career.”

Dr Aboutorab acknowledges feeling “overwhelmed” in the past, being part of the minority of female engineers, but credits having successful role models and mentors to look towards, both female and male, with boosting her confidence.

Having worked to achieve the position she now holds, Dr Aboutorab hopes to change incorrect perceptions and be a role model to the next generation of female engineers.

“One thing that discourages girls from pursuing engineering is the perception of engineering in the community, the incorrect stereotyping that maths, physics and engineering are for boys,” she says.

“We need to change this.

“We need to start an educational journey within our communities to dismiss these stereotypes.

"We need to provide opportunities for our girls to gain some exposure to the field and provide them with relatable role models who can inspire them.”

Asked what advice she would offer to her younger self or a young woman considering a career in engineering or STEM, Dr Aboutorab has some sound advice that would benefit anyone.

“Believe in yourself and what you can do. Explore a diverse array of subjects, read a lot and explore a lot,” she says.

“Don't let misconceptions stop you from reaching your goals. Take time to celebrate both the significant milestones and the small victories along the way.

“Actively seek mentorship to guide you, and, most importantly, support your peers throughout your journey.”

Dr Neda Aboutorab