Engineering – it's a woman's world
Engineering is not a profession immediately associated with women. Long dominated by men, its traditional image is of hard hats and heavy machinery.
With women representing less than 10 per cent of the engineering workforce in Australia, Engineers Australia has recognised the female deficit by naming 2007 the Year of Women in Engineering. The peak body hopes to increase awareness of the diversity, competence, influence and passion of women engineers.
"Engineering has one of the lowest participation rates by women across all professions. More than half the women in the engineering workforce are less than 30 years old, and only 15 per cent of women over 40 are still in the profession," Engineers Australia President, Rolfe Hartley, says.
Dr Sarah Johnson, an electrical engineer at the University of Newcastle, says "Engineering is a very rewarding career path, where you really can make a difference – but women do not see it as a job for them."
Johnson and her colleagues, Dr Elham Doroodchi and Dr Elena Levchenko, are part of the University’s Research Fellowship Scheme. It was launched in 2007 to help young researchers across all faculties start their research and teaching careers.
Doroodchi, a chemical engineer, is investigating novel means of producing emulsions – droplets of one fluid dispersed in another – which are widely used in the production of food, pharmaceutical products, cosmetics and chemicals.
She says, âThe droplets’ size and their size distribution in emulsions can affect the appearance, stability and shelf life of products as well as their ability to function. For example, if the droplet sizes in suntan lotion are not properly controlled, the lotion will not effectively penetrate the skin. I am developing an innovative miniaturised processing system to produce well controlled size droplets."
Interference in digital communications such as the internet is the focus of Johnson’s Research Fellowship. "Demands on the internet increase daily as it is used for videoconferencing and Voice Over Internet Protocol – for example, Skype – and error correction codes ensure the information travels over the other ‘noise’. I am adapting new error correction codes called repeat-accumulate codes, to help improve the quality of digital communications."
Levchenko is a mechanical engineer whose research focuses on hollow nanoparticles – tiny materials you can see only with an electron microscope.
"I am investigating the chemical and physical properties of these nanoparticles – their stability, structure, composition, feasible size and shape – in order to further explore and develop them.
"Hollow nanoparticles are particularly important in medication and hold huge potential for treating cancer and other diseases. Loaded with the precise amount of the required drug, the nanoparticles can be attached to either antibodies or blood cells and then selectively deliver the medication to the target part of the human body."
For Levchenko, who trained as an engineer in Russia, the critical lack of female engineering students in Australia was a surprise.
"In Russia there are equal numbers of men and women studying across most engineering disciplines. I think as a female engineering student in Australia you have to really focus and be determined to succeed in what is still a male industry. You are rallying against the stereotype."
Engineers Australia believes including women in engineering teams creates diversity, which is critical to problem solving, creativity, leadership and understanding in the workplace.
"With Australia now facing a severe skills shortage in engineering, recruiting and retaining women is not only about achieving a gender balance but is crucial to the growth of the industry," Hartley says.
Are Johnson, Doroodchi and Levchenko concerned about the gender imbalance in engineering?
"Redressing the imbalance can only be good for the profession," Johnson says. âIf females aren’t attracted to engineering then half of the potential recruits are out of the picture.
"The job opportunities are fantastic and well paid. More women in the field can only be a good thing."