We will be waiting for decades for evolutionary change to drive true diversity through male-dominated professions like engineering, says Stantec principal Joseph Walsh. Instead, it’s time for everyone to step up.
With International Women in Engineering Day this month on Wednesday 23 June, Walsh is taking the opportunity to highlight the “heavy lifting” needed to improve the industry’s gender diversity.
Walsh, a mechanical engineer for more than two decades, leads Stantec’s Sydney Buildings team.
Growing up with six sisters and now with three daughters of his own, Walsh has a first-hand appreciation of the challenges that women face. “I was always surrounded by strong women role models in my life – although there were very few of those role models when I started my career in engineering.”
Walsh has seen structural gender bias at close quarters. “My brother and I gained private school education but not all my sisters did. Structural gender bias existed in our society at very fundamental levels until only recently. Many of the obvious obstacles have been eliminated but there are some that still exist, and this leads to the number of women in engineering still under-represented in the industry.”
Engineers Australia's most recent statistical overview of the industry, published in June 2019, revealed that less than 13 per cent of qualified engineers are women. Just 17 per cent of engineering graduates are women, according to the Australian Government's STEM Equity Monitor, although the proportion of women enrolling in engineering degrees has increased by three per cent in the last four years.
The reasons why women avoid careers in engineering is complex, but Walsh admits that “unconscious bias starts at a very young age”. He points to LEGO as an example. “Girls are encouraged to play with the pink ice cream trucks and boys with the blue space LEGO. That’s just the start.”
With such structural inequalities at play, attracting more women into engineering will require concerted effort and creativity, and it starts with “us all recognising the unconscious biases that exist in our own minds”.
A third of Stantec’s technical staff are female and the number of engineers in the firm has “slowly increased year on year,” Walsh says. “In Sydney, we currently have six female project engineers and a female section manager in our buildings group. It has been a frustratingly slow progress, but we are moving the dial every year.”
Stantec’s Women in Engineering group runs regular training, workshops and discussion forums to recognise to the contribution of women in the business. It brings attention to discussions that will help break down the barriers impeding female participation in the industry; an initiative that Walsh recognises as an important tool.
Unconscious bias training is delivered across the firm, and Stantec has reviewed its hiring literature “to make sure it isn’t blokey”. Stantec also undertakes regular pay gap analysis, “because if it gets measured it gets managed”.
With most engineering firms in Australia competing for the same female talent, Stantec is also looking further afield to grow its workforce. Some new recruits have architecture and sustainability backgrounds and “we are also looking to other countries where the graduate engineering gender gap isn’t as wide”.
For all this hard work, there is still a “big mental shift” required across the industry to avoid the merit trap by understanding the impact of unconscious bias, Walsh warns.
“If we say we want to increase the gender diversity of our business because of the many benefits – diversity of thought, improving workplace culture, allowing us to recruit from a bigger pool – then our hiring decisions must support that goal.”
Walsh points to the Champions of Change Coalition report, 40:40:20 for gender balance: Interrupting bias in your talent processes, which outlines how biases can influence the way merit is understood and applied, and why organisations can miss out on the best talent. He also applauds the Property Council’s Panel Pledge, which seeks gender balance on panels and forums.
“We run a filter over our events and speaking engagements to ensure we have good female representation. This not only ensures we have gender balance on stage, but also in the room.
“It’s a long road, but we are heading in the right direction,” Walsh adds. “It’s a change that can’t be led by just women. We all have to share the load.”