<< back to Monash Engineering

Women in engineering

Traditionally, engineering has been and still is a male-dominated field – both at university and within the workforce. Even today the number of female engineers is far outweighed by the number of men in the field, and considerable energy continues to be directed towards retaining female engineers in the workforce.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that coordinated nation-wide attempts began to be made to increase the number of women electing to study engineering. The Australian Bureau of Labour Market Research produced a report in 1982 highlighting the dismally low numbers of practising female engineers. The report revealed that the number of female undergraduates studying engineering was three per cent of the entire engineering student body across the country.

The Faculty of Engineering at Monash had long been conscious of the reality that engineering was a male-dominated field. Efforts were made to entice women to study engineering from the Faculty’s earliest days. Foundation Dean of Engineering, Professor Ken Hunt, hoped to increase ‘engineering awareness’ by introducing engineering subjects into the common first year shared with science undergraduates. In 1961 biology was an optional subject offered in the common first year. Hunt noted this was a subject ‘which will certainly be favoured by all (or almost all) female and some male entrants’.

women Engineering graduates 1976
Engineering graduates, from left: Le Thi Nham, Judi Wilkinson, Thu-Hang Nguyen, Gabrielle Buzatu, Susan James and Mary Gani, first woman engineer to be awarded PhD 

It wasn’t until 1964, three years after Monash first opened its doors to students, that the first female students enrolled in engineering. From these first two students, the numbers slowly grew. The first female engineering graduate was Njoman (Sue) Soelaksmi from Indonesia. Soelaksmi graduated in 1968 with a Bachelor of Engineering (Honours in electrical engineering). The next female student, Tjia Soe-Mei, did not graduate until 1970, also in electrical engineering. Bronwyn Adams  was the first female chemical engineer to graduate from Monash University and the whole of Victoria. She graduated the same year as Judith Graham (electrical), both women graduating with Honours in 1972. The following year Lynne King-Smith (electrical) and Barbara (Elizabeth) Manton (chemical) graduated.

There was a similar imbalance in the numbers of male and female postgraduate students in the Faculty. One of the earliest female graduate students was Mary Gani. After completing a Master of Science at the University of Melbourne, she and her husband, with a 10 week old daughter, went to England. Returning to Australia in 1964, after working at the Rolls Royce Advanced Research Laboratories, she became a part-time demonstrator-tutor in Chemistry at Monash whilst having two more daughters. Gani enrolled as the first female PhD candidate in the Department of Materials Engineering in 1972. Just before she finished in 1976, Gani was taken on as a senior tutor in the department. Not only was she the first female academic staff member appointed, but she was also the first female engineering PhD graduate. Gani recalls with laughter, that she ‘never got out of the place from then on’, staying in the Faculty until her retirement in 1996.

Gani reflected that being the first female academic staff member was not without its difficulties. She found that some people had trouble taking her seriously. ‘They seemed to have this idea that you were just doing it for pin money or something like that, that you weren’t actually serious in what you were teaching or doing.’ Over the years the increase of women in engineering and other science based courses, helped to challenge these inaccurate assumptions and stereotypes. Gani also remarked that she found that requests to join committees and provide ‘female’ representation became numerous to the point of irritation – with relatively few women on staff, the need to fulfill quotas of female representation on committees had to be shared among a small number of women.

women Engineering graduates 1977
Engineering graduates, from left: Jacqueline Dick, Sally Nugent, Yvonne Hirsch, Allana Stephens, unidentified man, Ruth Ault, and Jane Grice 

When Peter Darvall became Dean of Engineering in 1988, he was particularly dedicated to encouraging women to study engineering. Darvall visited high schools to talk to female students, proactively introducing the idea of studying engineering to them. He noted, ‘the most disappointing part was to go to many schools where girls did not do the science and maths subjects because they’d been talked out of it, or because somebody had told them that girls aren’t good at maths’. Darvall recalls that from this concerted effort to actively encourage female students to consider engineering as a career option, female enrolments increased by almost ten per cent. In 1972 there were just two women enrolled in engineering at Monash. This number had increased to ten by 1973, and had more than tripled by 1975 to 32. Peter Darvall was awarded the Institution of Engineers, Victoria Division Chairman’s Award for 1991 for ‘Distinguished Service to the Profession in Victoria’, as a result of his promotion of engineering to women.

Dariel De Sousa was an undergraduate student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering in the late 1980s and early 1990s. She remembers:

monash reporter de sousa
Overseas Training for Engineers
There weren’t many girls … there were four or five of us I think in my year. I did feel different because there were so few of us. [But] I didn’t feel excluded; I felt more than included.

De Sousa noted that there was sometimes a feeling of pressure to be ‘one of the boys’. She found it difficult to manage the balance between being a female and retaining her femininity, while also getting along in a male-dominated environment. ‘Most of the time I forgot my gender, but there were times when I was aware of it and I sometimes felt awkward or uncomfortable with it.’

Monash University was aware of the challenges faced by female students in a mostly male-dominated course, and in 1983 organised two discussion sessions with female students from engineering, members of staff and career advisors. These sessions identified some of the concerns of students, including the effects of maternity leave on career prospects, combining a career in engineering and a family, as well as how they would be received by the male-dominated profession. One of the outcomes from this initiative was the formation of the Monash University Women in Engineering Society. While the Society itself seems to have been short-lived, women were increasingly taking on active roles within the Engineering Students Society, as well as other social groups. Peter Darvall reflected that the ‘pecking order’ of the Faculty was enhanced by this changing reality.

In 1987 the Faculty discussed the idea of introducing a new combined Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Engineering double degree. Behind the introduction of this double degree was a desire to address the need for Australian engineers skilled in languages other than English – particularly Japanese, German, Indonesian and Malay. It was noted that many female secondary students continued language studies into their final year of high school. By offering a degree that facilitated the further study of languages and engineering, the Faculty of Engineering hoped it would provide a solution to the identified language problem and also ‘attract a new group of students, particularly some of the top female students’. This program began in 1990 with great success. Of the initial 24 students, 50 per cent were female.

The graduation address given by Peter Darvall in April 1988 reflected the Faculty’s increasing encouragement of female students.

To the graduating women in Engineering, I believe that you are in the vanguard of what will herein be a rapidly increasing proportion of women in Engineering … The introduction of women in Engineering courses is now at take-off point.

By the late 1980s the number of female graduates had increased significantly. In 1980 there were 53 women studying engineering at Monash, just five years later in 1985 this number had increased to 127. The minutes from the Monash University Alumni Operations committee record a discussion about the possibility of following the career progress of the female graduating class of 1988 in an effort to provide role models for future female engineering students.

Raphael Grzebeita talking to MLC students
Raphael Grzebeita talking to MLC students

Despite the steady increase in the number of females studying engineering, the balance was still skewed, both at Monash and around the country. Nationwide discussions about the number of women in traditionally male-dominated fields, such as engineering and science, had been gaining momentum since the early 1980s and various reports on the subject were commissioned. In amongst this dialogue the concept and implementation of a form of ‘affirmative action’ had emerged. Affirmative action in this context was about implementing strategies that would create equal opportunities for women in traditionally male-dominated fields of study – like engineering. It was a highly controversial issue, as in this context it involved strategies such as providing financial assistance for female students, offering supported places, or permitting female students with lower entry scores admission to degree courses.

It was around this time that the University of Melbourne implemented a form of affirmative action – lowering its entry scores for women seeking to enter the bachelor degree in engineering. While this idea was discussed by the Faculty of Engineering at Monash, that particular affirmative action policy was not implemented.

women in engineering documents
Women in Engineering Brochure

During the 1990s there was also an increase in funding for projects supporting women in engineering. In 1993 ESSO donated $10,000 towards the Women in Engineering Project. The Women in Engineering Project was introduced to increase awareness of professional engineering as a rewarding career option for women, by providing services to high school aged girls, their parents and teachers which encouraged engineering as a future study/career option. The project also supports female engineering students currently studying engineering, with mentoring, workshops, social functions and seminars.

In 1994 Monash University hosted a Women in Engineering Project Year 10 Experience, where 40 female year 10 students from a variety of different schools around Melbourne visited the Engineering Faculty at Monash to experience a day of engineering. The students met engineering undergraduates, attended lectures, labs and libraries and explored the social side of university life. The day was considered a general success with 55% of participants saying they would like to study engineering, and 33% saying it was a possibility. As well as encouraging young women to study engineering it also helped to change students’ perceptions about engineering in general. One secondary student commented: ‘the guys were kind but very geeky, and the girls were very friendly and helpful’.

During the early 1990s, there was an increase in the number of scholarships and prizes being awarded to women. The Industry and Dean’s Scholarships were open to all students but were increasingly awarded to women. By 1995 there were over 300 female undergraduates studying engineering at Monash representing just over 13% of the engineering enrolment.

Susan James, winner of high school spaghetti bridge competition, with fellow Firbank students
Susan James, winner of high school spaghetti bridge competition, with fellow Firbank students

2007 was declared the Year of Women in Engineering by Engineers Australia. As part of this, the National Committee of Women in Engineering supported a survey of women in the engineering profession. A similar survey had been conducted in 1999 and the greatest change recorded by the women surveyed was the increased availability of carers’ leave, paid maternity leave, flexible work hours and job sharing options. In 2011, Monash University offers ten bursaries annually to the highest achieving year 12 female students enrolling in engineering.

Despite all of these efforts, engineering still remains a largely male-dominated field. In 2010 there were 62,518 students enrolled at Monash University across the various campuses. While 56.7 per cent of these students were female, less than 20 per cent of the students studying engineering at Monash are women. However, this is a vast improvement on the situation fifty years ago. The challenge today is not just about encouraging women to study engineering, it is also about supporting them within the engineering workplace. Changing attitudes and stereotypes about traditional gendered occupations are just as important as removing gender inequalities in universities. Monash University is just one of many different organisations working hard to improve the prospects for women in engineering.

References:

  1. Monash University Archives, Mary Gani Interview
  2. Monash University Archives, Dariel De Sousa Interview
  3. Monash University Archives, Peter Darvall Interview
  4. Monash University Archives, Eng 34
  5. Monash University Archives, Eng 35
  6. Monash University Archives, Eng 40
  7. Monash University Archives, Eng 43
  1. Gunilla Burrowes, ‘The Women in Engineering Movement in Australia’ 
  2. Bronwyn Jane Adams, Australian Encyclopaedia of Science 
  3. Peter Darvall, ‘Engineering Education: Vision and Reality; Challenges and Commitment; Innovation and Politics’, Australasian Journal of Engineering, Vol. 1, No. 2, 1990
  4. Peter Darvall, ‘Issues in Engineering Education in Australia’, Australasian Journal of Engineering, Vol. 2, No. 2, 1991
  5. Peter Darvall, ‘Fresh Eggs: Engineering for Girls from Girls Schools’, Proceedings from the 1st National Conference on Education for Girls in Girls Schools, Melbourne, August 1992, pp. 86-98
  6. The Monash Reporter, Vol. 27, No. 228, May 1990
  7. Women in Engineering Project’s Year 10 Experience notes
  8. 'News from the faculties: Women in engineering', Equity: Affirming equality of opportunity at Monash University, edition 2, July 1993, p. 4
  9. 'Changing perceptions, and the profession: the Women in Engineering Project', Equity: Affirming equality of opportunity at Monash University, edition 3, December 1993, pp. 1 & 8
monash engineering