Pioneering Women: Past, Present & Future

Pioneering Women: Past, Present & Future

International Women’s Day is celebrated around the world on 8 March. This year it coincided with the IPWEA NZ Northern Branch meeting in Manukau, where I facilitated an open forum on women in the workplace today and showcased pioneering women who have left their mark on the world of engineering.

Attendees were asked about the great things that have been happening in their organisations that improve gender equality and what changes we still need to bring.

When asked to raise hands to show how many Director, CEO or GM roles in their organisations were held by women, around a quarter of the room responded, less so for middle management roles. We may have made great strides in elevating women through the glass ceiling (and concrete-floor) but there is still plenty more that can be done.

Engineering has traditionally been a male-dominated industry. The recognition around the room was that women choosing an engineering career path are highly intelligent, capable leaders. There is a perception that it’s okay to have average men in leadership roles, but their female equivalents need to be exceptional. This isn’t about advocating for an ‘average’ woman but a recognition of the exceptional ability of women in engineering and proactively encouraging all women to consider engineering, science and planning careers.

We discussed the pros and cons of working part-time (this applied to all genders). The negatives were perceived expectations that three days still means a 40-hour week, and that a person can be respected less by co-workers if not full time. We need to change this attitude, acknowledging that since 2015, work-life balance has ranked above remuneration by job seekers. As we move forward, productivity and outcomes are the real benchmarks – “it’s not how many hours you do – it’s what you do with your hours”. Being able to raise a family and sustain a career has been demonstrated the world over and in New Zealand. If we make part-time role models more visible and celebrated it will become the norm.

When asked to name female engineers who have changed the world – the silence was deafening. We have had centuries of history – it’s equally time for herstory.

In 1918, Edith Clarke became the first woman to earn an electrical engineering degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She patented the Clarke Calculator – a device that was used to solve electrical transmission issues.

Martha Coston created a signalling flare system, known as Coston Flares, still used by the United States navy today. Stephanie Kwolek was one of the first female research chemists and invented Kevlar, which is used in bullet-proof vests, safety helmets, camping gear, snow skis and my sister-in-law’s tennis shoes.

And Hedy Lamarr – by day a Hollywood actor, by night shattering stereotypes by using her engineering acumen to invent a remote-controlled communications system for the United States military. In fact, if it wasn’t for Hedy, we likely wouldn’t have Wi-Fi today.

On a final note, imagine a world where gender or diversity are no longer something that needs singling out for a special day. We celebrated women on the 8th March – let’s make the other 364 days of the year count too.

Please note Deborah is available to facilitate or present to your organisation on this and other topics.

Dr Deborah Lind is Technical Lead - Advisory Services at Harrison Grierson. Deborah brings a unique insight into the political, social and technical challenges faced by organisations delivering infrastructure solutions.

Back to HG Perspective