Women continue to make up a small minority of engineering students and staff. This month, we celebrated International Women’s Day where we acknowledge the achievements of women. William Verity speaks to two SMART researchers about their experience of gender.

When Dr Shiva Pedram studied for her undergraduate degree in Malaysia in 2005, there were 50 students in her class. Just two of them were women.

Later, when she came to study engineering management in 2010, the situation had improved somewhat. In a class of 30, there were five or six women.

Pedram has since worked extensively with the mining industry – another sector of male dominance – but her gender has never held her back. Quite the reverse in fact.

Her PhD research was highly industry driven and focused on the impact of using virtual reality environments to train mine rescue brigades for dangerous and catastrophe situations.

The aim of her research is to evaluate the impact of implementing such advance technologies for training and improving safety in high-risk industries such as mining industry.

“When I was in my undergraduate degree, the guys respected us because we [Shiva, and the only other female student] tried so hard,” she said.

“We always needed to do our best so that the boys wouldn’t nag us. We needed to get better or the same marks to gain respect, so it became very competitive at times.”

The same dynamic has played out when she came to SMART and started teaching classes for the University of Wollongong at the School of Electrical, Computer and Telecommunications Engineering that were overwhelmingly male.

“It was really hard to manage the guys at first,” Dr Pedram said.

“I was female, and only a couple of years older than them so they didn’t know if they could trust me as a teacher.”

Because they could trust her, she found that those initial difficulties were short-lived.

Yet despite her relatively smooth ride through the complexities of gender politics, Dr Pedram was a passionate supporter of a recent UOW STEM festival that aimed to encourage more girls into studying science and technology.

She doesn’t know why the imbalance is so pronounced, or so hard to budge, but she does know that there is nothing inherently masculine in the study of science and technology.

“I think society still doesn’t trust women’s brains, and I think women don’t believe in themselves some of the time,” she said.

Dr Pedram’s experience of gender in engineering is broadly symptomatic of the wider picture in Australia.

Engineering is a male dominated profession and change has been slow.

According to Engineers Australia, in the 2006 census, there were 10.6 per cent women in the engineering labour force and just 8.2 per cent women engineers employed in engineering occupations

By 2011, the proportion of women in the engineering labour force had increased to 11.8 per cent and to 9.7 per cent of engineers employed in engineering occupations.

Dr Pedram shares an office with Dr Fariba Ramezani, who studied economics where the genders were roughly equal – about 60/40.

Dr Ramezani is an economist with expertise in macroeconomic modelling. Her areas of interest and specialisation include environmental and resource economics, infrastructure economics, and public finance.

She has particular skills in analysing decision-making problems under uncertainty.

She began her PhD at the University of Wollongong in 2012, having been awarded a SMART Scholarship.

During the four years of the program, Dr Ramezani has extended her knowledge of macroeconomic modelling, and has developed skills in computer programs such as Matlab and Stata and has worked on projects at SMART including Vision Illawarra and SWIRL.

The biggest change for Dr Ramezani was not the gender mix, but the different ways in which economics and engineering were approached.

In the world of policy formulation, where she does much of her work, the final decision is almost always made by a man, and she admits that that can be frustrating.

“You have to work hard to show your ability,” she said.

She too believes there is nothing inherently masculine about science, and says the acculturation starts when children are young and boys are encouraged to play with toys that require an engineering component, leading them to enrol in engineering courses with only the keenest women signing up.