For today’s purpose-driven students, could focussing on humanitarian engineering in schools open a door for more women in engineering?
In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a new generation of engineers emerging. They’re not just technologically savvy – they are socially minded, environmentally aware humanitarian engineers with a new sense of purpose.
Humanitarian engineering involves applying technology-based solutions to improve conditions in areas of need. This can take many forms, including: enabling access to sanitation, clean water and electricity; biomedical technologies for people with a disability; or solutions for disaster relief.
The discipline isn’t new – engineers have contributed to community and international development for decades. What is new is the number of undergraduate students participating in study tours, research projects, courses and even university majors in this space.
For example, the Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Design Summit, a study tour in developing countries, has grown from 125 undergraduate students in 2015 to 600 students in 2017. And just last year, the University of Sydney released a first-of-its-kind humanitarian engineering major.
So why is this important?
The composition of the students within humanitarian engineering is a point of interest. At U.C. Berkeley, an engineering course on designing sustainable cities has an enrolment of 70 per cent women. In the EWB Design Summit Program, 44 per cent of participants are women. This is remarkable considering only 14.9 per cent of entry level engineering students are women.
Diversity not only brings benefits but it brings excellence. It’s good for decision making, good for innovation and good for business. So why is it that an occupation founded on complex problem-solving consistently fails to address its well-documented gender diversity problem?
The American Association of University Women’s Solving the Equation Report commented that cultural and structural elements – including stereotypes, biases, micro-inequities and sexism – shape women’s experiences in engineering. Furthermore, the perception (and sometimes reality) that engineering occupations lack opportunities to work with and help others might explain the underrepresentation of women in engineering.
Of the few women who choose to commence engineering study, many do not transition into the workforce. The retention rate for domestic women in undergraduate study is 82.7 per cent, but only 51.2 per cent of qualified women engineers actually work in the profession. This compares to 63.6 per cent for men. During my studies, I was particularly drawn to and excited by humanitarian engineering and (just) made it through. It was a direct result of exposure to humanitarian engineering that I began my career working to increase energy access in rural Cambodia.
At its core, humanitarian engineering is about appropriateness and sustainability, two fundamental components of engineering. Learning the principles of human-centred design underpinned by empathy and compassion, humanitarian engineering instills holistic problem solving skills, which are increasingly relevant and valuable in the 21st century. This makes not just better engineers, but better people.
Humanitarian engineering is a gateway
Humanitarian engineering provides a perfect example of the diversity of opportunities and people in the engineering profession. It’s a no brainer: increasing awareness and participation will increase the representation and retention of women in engineering.
I’m not saying that humanitarian engineering is a girls club. The days of boys’ clubs vs girls’ clubs are over. What I am saying is we can break stereotypes and begin to combat biases, inequities and sexism. We can open the minds of young students to the possibilities afforded by an engineering education and pave the way for them to be the best engineers they can be.
Humanitarian engineers are in every discipline: they are wearing steel capped boots designing your local road or railway; they are facilitating food distribution in refugee camps; they are constructing hydropower plants in the Himalayas.
They are building the future, and young women and men should be inspired to be socially minded, environmentally aware, humanitarian engineers to shape what it looks like.