Building bridges beyond roads and between the sexes

No 6 Ranking World Impact Ratings SDG5 - Gender Equality.

It was 1989 and Nic Smith was entering the School of Engineering as a first-year student. He was one of 300 - 400 budding engineers.

Of those, just a handful were women.

Now Dean of Engineering at the Faculty of Engineering, Professor Smith’s faculty is on a mission to eventually see an equal mix of male and female engineering graduates.

As part of that initiative, they have established the WE33 goal, which aims to get the number of first year female graduate enrolments in the School of Engineering to 33 per cent. Great steps towards achieving this goal have already been taken and in the last five years, numbers women students in the faculty have increasedincreased from 22 per cent to almost 30.

But the Faculty is not content to stop when the WE33 goal is reached. “We would all like to push beyond to 50 per cent by 2030,” Professor Smith says.

The school’s role is to have the most talented group of people come into the engineering facility: “and that won’t happen unless we’re representative of society - and society is 50 per cent of each gender.”

Moves are also afoot to boost Maori and Pacifica representation in engineering, Professor Smith continues.

Long gone are the days when the engineering student was perceived as fitting one of two stereotypes: the vitamin D-deficient lab inhabitant or the hard hat-wearing Philistine driving a bulldozer. Neither caricature proved true, “but such stereotyping myths are likely to have been a significant barrier for women.”

Engineering has gone way beyond the building of bridges, Professor Smith says, and as part of that, engineers themselves have become more diverse. “Increasingly, it’s about how technology engages with humanity. If you look at the challenges and opportunities around that interface, they’re often challenges of communication rather than technical issues.”

As part of the WE33 goal, the school has developed a number of programmes, including one that reaches out to female secondary students. Contributions are made by high profile women within the faculty, as well as talented young female engineers, in a bid to encourage and inspire new female students to have a go themselves.

The programme is further supported by some large corporations, including Mercury, Tonkin+Taylor and Fisher & Paykel Healthcare.

In Professor Smith’s eyes, the decision to strive for a 50-50 class balance was one of his fundamental obligations. “We need all aspects of society. And it’s an opportunity where we can have a stronger and more talented group of people.”