Over the past three days, 12-14 January, 100 young women have designed satellites, built gas turbines, programmed robots, constructed earthen dams and been busy in industry-standard workshops as part of the fifth annual UNSW Canberra Young Women in Engineering (YoWIE) program, held at the ADFA campus in Campbell.
Standing outside a workshop full of teenage girls focussed intently on metalwork projects, UNSW Canberra aerospace engineer Dr Bianca Capra said there had probably never been so many young women in that room before.
“A lot of the girls here have no idea what engineering is, and it’s just about putting that little seed in their mind that it’s a really fun profession to enter into,” she said.
Despite complexities created by COVID-19, the number of attendees increased by about 20% this year, from 79 to 100 young women in Year 9 and above.
Last year was Queanbeyan High School student Isabel Innes’ first time attending the program, and in 2021 she returned as a Super YoWIE, to instruct and encourage newcomers.
Ms Innes said she didn’t see herself pursuing a career in science, technology, engineering or maths (STEM) until UNSW Canberra’s YoWIE opened her mind to “all the endless possibilities” within the field.
“I was like, this is what STEM is and I want nothing to do with it,” she said.
“And then when I got here, I got to do so much fun stuff!”
Ms Innes is set to start the HSC this year, studying subjects chosen to allow her to pursue engineering, an industry which remains male-dominated – only 13% of degree-qualified engineers are women.
Dr Capra said while there has been some progress towards an improved gender balance, there was still a long way to go.
“I knew no female engineers when I decided to become an engineer, and I was never taught by a female again once I left high school – all of my tertiary education was taught by men.”
Dr Capra said the program wasn’t just about building skills, it was also about exposing attendees to other young women forging their way in the field.
As a Super YoWIE, Ms Innes confidently instructed the workshop of young women by giving detailed verbal and visual instructions and made sure her peers felt comfortable approaching her.
“As soon as we start opening up, other people start becoming more comfortable and we can make a really good environment for people to learn, and a safe space for them to be themselves.”
But the lack of diversity in typical STEM classrooms was sometimes discouraging.
“It can be hard to get yourself heard, and get your ideas heard, and get yourself out there.” Ms Innes said.
“Especially if you’re in a minority – to feel like you’re not being excluded, or to feel like you can’t add your perspective to stuff.”
When it came to practical skills like steady hands, spatial awareness, creativity and design, Ms Innes said she already knew useful techniques, but before YoWIE she’d never applied them in a workshop.
“You feel like, this is what I was doing the other day when I was straightening my hair, or when I was playing around with makeup, or this is what I was doing when I was drawing art,” she said.
“We’re not really told that you can apply these skills to different environments!”
This was why Ms Innes hoped the girls who attended this week would pick STEM subjects in the future.
“To get more girls in, so we can have different perspectives and different views on things, so that we can keep making things better and make a world that’s not just for males to dominate – that women can also dominate!”
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