This post is the full text of a piece I wrote for a special edition of Uninews celebrating 125 years of women's suffrage in NZ. The Uninews version was abridged due to space constraints.
As NZ celebrates 125 years of women’s suffrage I find myself thinking of my grandmothers, and of my mother, and about the choices and opportunities they had. Suffrage granted my grandmothers (born early in the 20th century) the vote, and I hope they exercised that choice. A University education however was not a realistic choice for them. By the time my mother was leaving high school in the early 1960s a University education was available to more women – though her family steered her to training college as a dental nurse.
It was not until 1970 that the first female student graduated from the Faculty of Engineering (Gee Yeow from Malaysia earned a BE in Civil Engineering), with the first NZ woman graduating in 1973 (Gael Knight in Chemical & Materials Engineering). Gee and Gael paved the way for around 2,500 women (so far) to graduate with BE degrees. One of those women was Robyn Nash who enrolled in 1982 holds a BE in Engineering Science. Reflecting on her path into the Faculty she says:
“When I was in 7th form, (Year 13) my plan was to complete a Science degree and teach Maths and Science. But I had an excellent Maths teacher who was an Engineering Science graduate and, because of her, I decided to do Engineering Science. I hadn’t considered studying Engineering until then, so I’m fortunate my Maths teacher was in the right place at the right time. In fact, because of her, two other girls from my class also chose to do Engineering Science. I’ve never regretted my decision, even though I’m still not a teacher!”
A landmark for the Faculty was appointing Liz Godfrey in 1989 to recruit and retain female students. By the early 1990s women comprised 18 to 20% of the first year engineering intake each year. I was one of those women, and co-founded the Faculty’s “Women in Engineering Network” (WEN) which is now a vibrant part of the fabric of student life at the Faculty. That network just celebrated its 25th anniversary and has a significant number of corporate sponsors who value its role in the Faculty.
While I did not set out to be a trailblazer (despite my prematurely red hair!) in 2013 I became the first woman (of many I hope) to serve as a Head of Department within the Faculty. In 2016 I was thrilled to see Robyn Nash’s daughter, Gemma, enrol in a BE. The fact that we are now seeing a number of young women enrolling whose mothers have engineering degrees is a fantastic milestone to be reaching. Gemma notes:
“Until halfway through my final year of high school I was planning on studying science, and was adamantly against channeling my love for the sciences and maths into an engineering degree (because no girl wants to admit they're becoming their mother!). However, my desire to use science to create and explore new ideas made me change my mind, and I'm very glad I did! I'm now combining my interests with a conjoint degree in Engineering and Science.
Within the first few weeks of university, I knew that Engineering Science is my specialisation. The degree prepares us to become experts in fields still in their infancy, such as machine learning, analytics, and optimisation. There's great potential in what we do, and I know that this 'science of better’ changes lives.”
Suffrage set NZ on a path to empower women as full contributors in our society. Our Faculty wants that progress to continue and our Dean, Prof. Nic Smith, has challenged the Faculty to achieve 33% female enrolment by the year 2020. Female enrolment in the BE is currently around 27% each year – a level which some Universities in the region have set as an aspirational target. However we know that young people across NZ – regardless of their gender, ethnicity or family background - have talent, and a desire (like Gemma’s) to work on problems which can genuinely improve the lives of people in communities in NZ and abroad.
To change our enrolment profile we’re reaching out to young women in schools in new ways. We have a partnership with Girlboss, an organisation run by Alexia Hilbertidou. At age 19 Alexia runs her own business which has a mission to close the gender gap in Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths, Entrepreneurship and Leadership. We have new online content in production, and are launching a school holiday tutoring program to help build STEM skills and confidence in female high school students.
Reaching 33% female enrolment will be a new landmark in the Faculty’s evolution and will be a step toward ensuring our student cohort are reflective of wider NZ society.