Life ad­vice

En­gi­neer Air­lie Chap­man wants to see more women in STEM.

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - Stellar - - Cotents -

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”

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