Women event a 'wakeup call' for men

On Tuesday night 50 people gathered in the Beca auditorium to discuss how we can encourage more women into STEM. As consultants and engineers, we build and design things for everyone - including women. And we know that diverse teams produce better outcomes. So why is our industry so underrepresented when it comes to gender? ACE CE, Helen Davidson shares her thoughts.

Women in STEM

The Women in STEM event

Alexia Hilbertidou kicked off the night by telling us how she was the only girl in a sea of boys in a high school computer coding class. We all gaped when she explained how she was ridiculed by her classmates after winning a coding competition by her classmates and was told she only won because she was a girl and that she'd look good in the promotional material.  

She told us about how the role models she was expected to look up to in her class were mainly white...boys. As a woman, of Samoan-Greek heritage, this could not have been further from who she was or could aspire to be.   

Alexia started her business, GirlBoss, when she was 16 years old. She chose to ignore the advice of her parents and career advisor to go to university first. Alexia had experienced so much adversity and gender inequality throughout her short life; she felt compelled to do something about it. GirlBoss focuses on closing the gender gap in science, technology, engineering, maths, leadership and entrepreneurship in New Zealand. Companies, like Fletcher Construction, have approached Alexia to help them get more women into their programmes and eventually working for them.  

Alexia left us thinking, could we be doing more to encourage women into STEM way earlier than what we have been? 

Alexia then joined me, Darryl-Lee Wendelborn, MD Beca, Rupert Hodson, Northern Regional Manager Beca and Glen Cornelius, MD at Harrison Grierson, on the panel to take questions from the audience around gender equality in our industry.  

Glen Cornelius said that we're treading water and not moving forward as much as we should be as an industry.  

''83% of Engineering New Zealand's membership is men. We should be asking what do we do as an industry to effect change. We have The Wonder Project through Engineering New Zealand, and we have GirlBoss - so there are small bits going on, but I think it starts earlier by getting young women interested in STEM. That's the challenge that the industry is grappling with. I'm just not sure of the answer!''  

I couldn't agree moreThe mahi of The Wonder Project is an excellent programme for our Engineering New Zealand partners to have developed and we are seeing real results through that. As a sector we need to continue to support this initiative by volunteering our time (and our staff’s time) as Wonder Project ambassadors inspiring the next generation of STEM professionals 

Darryl-Lee Wendelborn said that the reality is, gender inequality is a societal issue, not just an industry issue.  

''Girls choose what they like to do and what they decide as fun at about seven years old. You can be what you see. So we need to make sure they see women in campaigns to entice them into STEM. We need to make sure they see Maori and Pasifika people, too - all of that.  

We have to get them at primary school age - that's when they're going to decide to consider studying STEM subjects.''  

Rupert Hodson also spoke about women in STEM once they begin their career.  

''We need to grow them into leadership roles - as an industry, we can think more deeply about this. We need to have a good look at each of our businesses and ask ourselves some hard questions ''what are we doing?'' ''what are our statistics''. We need to understand our biases and do things a bit more deliberately. We need to think about the way we do things now that aren't fit-for-purpose - and that's sometimes uncomfortable.'' 

This caused me to reflect on our role to uplift and empower tomorrow’s leaders paying conscious attention to providing those opportunities to women, Maori and Pasifika.  

Something that stood out for me was that of the 50 people in the room; only a handful were men. Men also need to be our champions and allies when it comes to gender equality. Sarah Lang of Beca asked the panel how we can make this an industry issue rather than a women's issue? 

Glen said that to broaden the net of bringing more male champions into the fold, we needed to sign up to the Diversity Agenda Accord 

''Because an organisation signs up to the Accord, rather than an individual, it means there is senior and management level buy-in which commits them to measure and report on stats within the business. If you aren't measuring and reporting, things don't get done. I think we need to be looking at how we ramp up the Accord.  

Rupert spoke about what makes this an issue important for him  

''You don't know what you don't know, and having plenty of strong female role-models around me in the industry has made me realise that when it comes to planning specifically - you plan for everybody, and that's women, ethnicity and everything. You want to have a workforce that helps deliver that. We need representation across the community. Until the last few years, I just thought we were getting there, but I now have an awareness that this is not going to happen unless we push the envelope a bit more. Tonight is a wake-up call to do more.'' 

As a mother of two boys, I take my responsibility to build their awareness of this issue very seriously. We talked about growing young women to see opportunities, but we have to grow young men who understand the space they need to make for women.  

The night left me thinking, what kind of future do we envision for women in STEM in Aotearoa? For me, the answer lies in another question; what kind of future do we envision for the success of our sector in Aotearoa – because I can guarantee you we won’t get there unless we make our sector a welcoming and safe space for everyone, where everyone has an equal opportunity to excelI'd love to hear your thoughts [email protected]