Sending the right message to our girls
OPINION: Google's public discussion about gender diversity in the tech industry and software engineer Claudia Hill's reflections on the issue in New Zealand this week have shone a light on an important issue. Should we be seeking more female engineers?
Let's bust the myth right now. Women aren't leaving engineering and technology because of an innate lack of ability or interest.
Many leave because they often hear the message that they don't belong: through reports of sexism in Silicon Valley, not to mention that which they experience in their working lives; through a gender pay gap of 18.8 per cent, as reported in our 2016 engineering salary trends survey; through a lack of role models in engineering senior management teams and on governing boards; and through a lack of access to flexible working opportunities.
At IPENZ, the professional body representing engineers in all fields, including software engineering, we know countless talented, community-minded individuals – male and female – who are making a difference to New Zealanders' quality of life every day.
But despite having the technical skills and expertise, 29 per cent of our female engineers leave the industry within 5 to 10 years of graduating – compared with only 18 per cent of male engineers. That numbers far too high.
It's a hard road into engineering to begin with. Girls will decide by age 11 whether or not they want to study science.
Their parents and teachers won't necessarily encourage them to reconsider because of the pervading stereotype that science is "for boys".
If you want to work in engineering or IT, you need that basic scientific knowledge – and if you're part of the 50 per cent ruled out before the age of 11, what hope have you got? In our society, we don't advise and encourage girls to pursue science. We don't see them as potential engineers. And we don't make it easy for them to find their way.
Slowly, though, attitudes are changing. Last week, we hosted a national Week of Engineering alongside engineering firms. It was inspiring to see so many children – girls and boys –bring their parents to the Week of Engineering expo and get stuck in to exploring all the opportunities engineering has to offer.
Whether it was using newspaper and sellotape to build a platform strong enough to support a bottle of water, building with a mountain of Lego or exploring the world of VR, more than 1,000 kids in Wellington alone made the most of the chance to see what engineering's all about – so they, and their parents, can make those subject choices with a little more knowledge.
And we're seeing that influence in the diversity of engineering students at tertiary level already. Today's graduating classes are far more diverse than the engineering and IT professions. But we lose 29 per cent of our female engineering professionals within the first 10 years.
Why does this matter? Because companies with a gender diverse workforce see better commercial results. Diversity of thought creates richer opportunities for more innovative and higher value outcomes.
Global Women's Champions for Change initiative reported that CEOs who've led diversity and inclusion strategies say they're better at attracting talent, their business performance has been enhanced, they're better at innovating and have enhanced customer satisfaction.
Research proves that if we persist with the outdated idea that women aren't wired to be engineers, we're cheating ourselves of opportunities to innovate, to win the race for talent and to be leaders in the global technology field.
New Zealand has a reputation for being a progressive nation, and in many ways it is. But if we continue to question the capability and commitment of our female engineers, we're just setting them, and ourselves, up to fail.
When it comes to the business, cultural and economic benefits of seeking diversity of thought in engineering and technology, the evidence is beyond compelling – it is absolute.
Susan Freeman-Greene is the Chief Executive of the Institution of Professional Engineers New Zealand (IPENZ). IPENZ is New Zealand's professional body for engineers, with more than 18,000 members from a range of disciplines.