Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Let Girls Be Girls

When I was making my career choices about thirty years ago, I went with my natural strengths, the things I was good at, the things I enjoy. In the 80s, the gender divide was more pronounced than it is now; had I wanted to study engineering, or do an apprenticeship as a builder or plumber, my life might've been harder, but even then, there was nothing but my own preferences and the community expectations of a small town.

This year, my beautiful step-daughter was accepted into university to study civil engineering. She worked hard at high school, got the marks she needed and was accepted into the course she'd been dreaming about for years. One of my closest friends from high school took longer to make her choice, but she's now a qualified and successful architect. There were no gender-related barriers to these careers for Steph and Su, no additional financial burden levied on students with vaginas. They met the entry requirements, and were accepted.

Yesterday, Queensland Premier Campbell Newman and Education Minister John Paul Langbroek announced a $10m scholarship programme to encourage women into careers more traditionally dominated by men. I'm usually in favour of projects to support minorities and break down social barriers, but in this case, I wasn't aware that there was a need.

I'm still not convinced. Women who want 'Hard-Hat' careers are already doing it, aren't they? Steph and Su are. The women in hi-viz and PPE who work at the manufacturing plant down the road are.

Premier Newman justified his scholarship:

"Female enrolments in the areas of engineering and architecture lagged well behind those of males, with 408 women enrolled in engineering in Queensland last year compared to 2,923 men."

Two years ago, The Guardian looked at this issue:
"Engineering is the subject with the smallest proportion of women, with fewer than one in seven students female. Peter Hicks, a member of the education and skills panel of the Institution of Engineering and Technology, is concerned. "We need to be very worried that ... these figure are low and not getting any better. In my 40 years of teaching electrical engineering at Manchester University women never made up more than 5% of my classes. The UK desperately needs engineers – we can't afford to lose what is effectively half of its talent."

Female Engineers - Their Own Perspective is a study by the Department of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering, Loughborough University. Their study included an investigation of the reasons why women didn't choose engineering careers: eight reasons were identified but the expense of studying was not even one of the eight factors identified. 

Is a scholarship scheme the right approach, then? In fact, is the career/gender imbalance a problem at all? Stuart Nathan, Features Editor of The Engineer, sees a problem, but suggests the answer lies in communication. As far as I know, there are no actual barriers to women entering male-dominated career areas, the priesthood notwithstanding.  Logically, if women are under-represented, it must be because they are less inclined to take up positions in the Hard-Hat careers.
"The main argument for attracting women into engineering is an extremely simple one. A sector which draws only on one gender is exploiting half of its available talent pool. It’s ridiculous to imagine that the skills and talents needed to become an engineer are restricted to men, and many women are being denied the chance to use their abilities in a field which needs all the innovative people it can get."

The previous government had a communications programme to encourage women to consider these career areas:  the focus was in highlighting to women the benefits in considering these less traditional careers, and providing  information and resources about different career paths.

In any case, the Newman Government will make available up to 5000 scholarships for women in Queensland studying 'Hard Hat' careers in engineering, construction, architecture and agriculture.  Is this Affirmative Action, Equal Opportunity, positive discrimination? Definitely.

And I'm left with a couple of questions:

Will the promise of a $20,000 scholarship change a woman's mind about her career course? If she was planning to study for a more 'feminine' career, say, Communications or Human Resources or Nursing, is that scholarship enough to move her choice to, say Architecture or Agronomy?

Secondly, what problem does this scholarship solve? If the scheme works, what does success look like? More female graduates? Great - but to what end? Less males in hard hats? What's the point?

Men and women can be equal, and can earn equally. Do we really need to have everything split 50/50 to prove a lack of bias? Men and women have different skill sets, different talents, different natural competencies. Shouldn't women be applauded for choosing the career that is right for them, not just encouraged to fill an artificial or irrelevant a quota.

If we're all free to contribute in the way best suited to us, isn't that the best measure of equality?

But the Queensland number is more than double the 5% quoted above, and unless there is an increase in the overall number of university and training places, there won't be an increase in the number of graduates, so this scholarship does not address the skills shortage at all.
That's 3,331 engineering places in Queensland last year, and about 12% are held by women. Premier Newman's comment suggests that the proportion of women should be higher, despite Queensland's figures being in line with international statistics.

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