A Gender Balancing Act

Credit: Naomi Simson LinkedIn

Article republished with permission from Naomi Simson


As International Women’s Day (IWD) on March 8 waits patiently for its annual moment in the spotlight, the pervasive issue of gender disparity in Australia, and the world remains. Yet there are people who have… and continue to do amazing work. It is just that some seem to be the quiet achiever type — Dr. Collette Burke, Captain Mona Shindy, Professor Fariba Dehghani, Sabina Shugg and Gwen Gray… to name a few.

When asked how I feel about women in business and the great gender divide, I reply:

Although it is necessary to highlight problems to advance positive attention, please, can we stop mulling over gender division and start focusing on positive change and conversation. Women are half the population. We add great value to business and industry and bring much-needed diversity to the conversation as highlighted in this Bain & Company report. Half the population might also mean half of the customer base or stakeholders… leadership needs to reflect those it represents.

Change occurs when people can see themselves represented in their leaders. When that change happens at the top, there are role models and people can see a way forward for themselves. This is a community issue – not a women’s issue. We as individuals, together with our communities at large, must do better to be gender inclusive and continue to #pressforprogress.

What has changed over time?

What we have seen statistically in recent years that female graduates are greatly outnumbering males in Australian universities. Why, then, is that trend not being echoed in Australian business leadership or in industries like engineering?

I thought I’d ask my father for his view on the topic. My Dad, Doug Elms, trained as a mechanical engineer in refrigeration and worked as a consulting engineer in air conditioning and building services for 54 years before retiring in 2012.

Tell us about some women that you came across working as engineers…

“Gwen Gray was an extremely capable and well-respected engineer in the profession who was the first ever female graduate from mechanical engineering certificate course from the Footscray Technical College in 1952. Gwen’s graduation was even recorded in the newspaper entry in the Sunshine Advertiser — a seriously significant event for the time.”

Is the engineering profession now 50/50 men and women?

“No, nothing like it. Barriers have been broken but like any change it takes time. Women need to have the will to participate because the vehicle is available for them to be involved. Nowadays, many women are participating at a significant professional level in the academia and managing training and university courses, teaching and encouraging other people to be involved.”

Is there a message you’d like to leave with the engineering community about gender balance?

“It is to be encouraged. Women bring a different perspective to a problem. They can often see a different, better solution… provided they are given the opportunity and equal chances they will succeed and do very well.

If there is something you want, go for it… don’t let yourself be deterred by anyone.”

Whilst my father says this (and he is the parent of two professional daughters and a wife who worked in computing), for some reason, the statistics don’t match his passion.

Stark Statistics

A recent Engineers Australia report titled ‘A Profession for All’ states that there is less than 13% female participation in the engineering field. Several factors influencing this number include:

  • access to flexible working practices
  • a lack of visible and meaningful leadership to support women in engineering
  • a lack of support for engineers with family caring responsibilities.
  • conscious and unconscious bias regarding the role of women in the workplace
  • a significant gender pay gap.

However, these factors are not confined to the engineering industry…

Interestingly, the World Economic Forum (WEF) 2017 Gender Gap Report suggests that “while women worldwide are closing the gap in critical areas such as health and education, significant gender inequality persists in the workforce and in politics”. The report goes on to say that “when women are more present in leadership roles, more women are hired right across the board at all level. This holds true even when taking into consideration the disparities in the size of female talent pools across various industry sectors”.

Is Gender Balance Utopia?

As a global society, we have put a dent in the line of gender inequality, I’m not denying us that, however, we are still not ‘there’. But where is ‘there’?

  • ‘There’ is a time when gender imbalance is a non-topic.
  • ‘There’ is a time when equal numbers of women and men are represented in leadership positions and boardrooms.
  • ‘There’ is a time when flexible working enables women to excel in their jobs and also be a mother if they so choose.
  • ‘There’ is a time when women receive the same amount of money in their bank accounts as their male counterparts.
  • ‘There’ is a time when women have a choice to follow their dreams and create their own financial independence.
  • ‘There’ is not utopia, ‘there’ is an achievable norm.

I believe that the more women who individually step into their power, instead of run from it, the more role models other women and young girls will have to aspire to.

All those years ago Gwen Gray was a role model for many – we need more women to be prepared to do the same.

2018 is off to a great start, with the announcement that Michelle Simmons was named 2018 Australian of the Year. Michelle is an exceptional leader in quantum physics and exemplifies the notion of Women Leaders Enabling Women Leaders.

Perhaps next year it will be a female engineer…


This blog post was written in collaboration with Engineers Australia who are hosting three International Women’s Day 2018 events in Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney next month which I am proud to be speaking at. Find out more here:http://www.engineersaustraliaiwd.com.au/