27 Feb 2019

Engineering sector in need of diversity among students

4:04 pm on 27 February 2019

An engineering dean is pushing to change unwanted cultures and perceptions in the engineering sector, to provide much needed diversity to the industry.

Low numbers of Māori and female students are enrolling in engineering at the University of Canterbury.

Philippa Martin speaking to engineering students at University of Canterbury. Photo: Supplied / University of Canterbury

The University of Canterbury has seen a steady growth in the number of female students enrolling in its engineering school.

However, the University of Canterbury's intermediate dean of engineering, Philippa Martin said things haven't changed much since she studied 26 years ago.

"We are now at about 20 percent [female students] and when I was a student it was probably closer to 15 percent," she said.

Māori student numbers were also lacking.

"We're tracking over seven percent Māori, but of course that's a lot lower than our population, so we're still too low in Māori students and also Pasifika students, so definitely we have work to do on different ethnicities," she said.

"Also in the rainbow community, the amount of students we have is much much lower than it should be."

Professor Martin believed part of the problem was image.

"People don't understand what we do and then they think that engineers are all blokes and it's a very masculine culture, so that's not inviting," she said.

She said engineering wasn't just building bridges, fixing engines and building gadgets, it was much broader and involved helping with healthcare, the environment and tackling climate change.

To change a lack of diversity, a number of initiatives have been set up, including open days and a peer mentoring programme, which is now in its second year.

"We were able to quickly identify students who were at risk or were having some issues, so if there were things going on in the halls of residents we could sort those out. Students that were anxious, we could connect them to support services and students who just didn't understand about assessments," she said.

She said, as a result, things were caught much more quickly and one of the most successful peer mentoring groups was for Māori students, which was extended from 10 weeks to the entire year.

But another large challenge that had to be addressed was workplace cultures.

"We have 1400 new people enter our college in engineering and product design every year and they all come with different understandings of what's an okay way to behave and how the world works, so there's a lot of work to be done there," she said.

She said the training of new staff, student leaders and bringing in new policies would allow problems to be dealt with early on.

"It's legally very difficult. So it's taking some time, but we're trying to make it easier to report problems and [are] focusing on educating people on what's the right way to act in a professional context, rather than it just being punishment," she said.

She added it was not just sexual harassment and assault that needed to be addressed.

"It's the little things as well, calling out somebody talking too loudly that is a minority student, but not calling out the white male doing the same thing, it's the little acts of unkindness that can wear people down as well," she said.

Why is diversity in engineering important?

Professor Martin said the technical challenges society would be faced with over the next decade was massive.

"We've got global warming to deal with, an ageing population, a lot of really complex challenges and not a lot of resources," she said.

She said if there wasn't a diverse workforce creating the next generation of technology, the solutions wouldn't suit a diverse population.

"If we don't have women designing things, we are not going to get things designed for women, if we don't have Māori and Pasifika involved then we are not going to have the right things that suit Māori and Pasifika people," she said. .