Engineer Airlie Chapman wants to see more women in STEM.
Aptitude isn’t gendered. The same way we would think it’s very odd if redheads, for instance, were six times more likely to study engineering than non-redheads, we should think it’s strange that women are six times less likely to study engineering or any STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics] field.
For a start, it shouldn’t come up that women aren’t capable. Let’s start at that grounding point and move on from there.
When it comes to sexism in the engineering industry, my experience is that people aren’t usually “outward” with their comments – they tend to be much more subtle. People don’t tend to say, “Only men should do this” or “Women shouldn’t do that”. Usually there are preconceptions or assumptions that display themselves in different ways. For example, people assume I am not a fully qualified engineer even though I’m in a room with fellow engineers.
My job is not to catch people out when they’ve highlighted just how gender-biased they are. My job is to represent excellence in engineering so people can come to the conclusion that I’m as capable as my male peers. It’s my job to change existing preconceptions.
But the fight against inequality isn’t one that women can fight alone. For my industry, it’s really important that all engineers support gender equality. We simply don’t have the numbers to make dramatic changes. Men must help, too.
I think one of the ways to combat the perception of engineering and STEM in general is to change the messaging we see out there. Images of engineers shouldn’t be of geeks with socially awkward personalities; we’re people. People who are trying to understand and solve important problems, and who are collaborating to make things better for everyone. That kind of messaging needs to exist on a very young level, before people start moving away from the sciences, and continue all the way through to university.
There are so many different sectors of society that end up in jobs they hate. Why spend your time doing something you don’t love just because someone once told you when you were younger that only boys do mathematics?
I love what I do. I’ve always been passionate about solving problems that impact mankind and about helping people. I didn’t necessarily know what engineering was when I was a kid, but I’m really glad I eventually found my way to it. This is the place I should always be. I’m happy to make the world better through engineering.
Look at what the world has achieved in the past and the talent we’ve had access to; imagine if that talent was doubled. Think of how much more we could do! All we have to do to double that talent is bring women on board. I’d love a future where there’s gender blindness across all industries. That’s something I hope to see in my lifetime. I believe we’re making steps towards it. We’re on an upwards, accelerating trajectory. L’ORÉAL-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellow Airlie Chapman will be recognised at the annual awards ceremony on November 15 at the National Gallery of Victoria.
“We should think it’s strange women are six times less likely to study STEM”