Apathy spells gender inequality in engineering studies

Venkat Raman

Despite realignment of courses, flexibility of hours of study and learn-at-your pace programmes, the number of women pursuing engineering courses in New Zealand is far below expectations, a senior academic has said.

Dr Aruna Shekar, Senior Lecturer at the School of Engineering and Advance Technology at Massey University Auckland (Albany) Campus said that while the overall efforts of achieving equal employment and other opportunities for women, engineering studies continue to anguish at woefully low levels.

Encouraging women

“It is unfortunate and even inexplicable that female students account for only 10% of the total number of students pursuing engineering disciplines. There are many exciting careers for women engineers and numerous opportunities for innovations that women can solve and relate to as users,” she said.

Dr Shekar, who was born, raised and educated in India, has been to that country as a part of Education New Zealand marketing teams in the past years. She is also aware off the impressive strides that women have taken as civil, electrical, mechanical, automotive and aeronautical engineers. She is confident that given the appropriate encouragement, New Zealand women will also be able to promote successful engineering careers.

“Women often bring a different perspective to problem solving which is very important. We need more women innovators and role models,” she said.

Engineering wealth

Dr Shekar said that she is committed to learning opportunities that would foster the creation of professional engineers with high calibre entrepreneurship. Among her priorities is to suggest ways and means of reducing the gender imbalance between male and female engineering students.

According to her, engineering courses are constantly evolving and that over the years, a number of new disciplines have been added to course contents and programmes. These are in consonance with the evolving trends that tend to cope with advances in technology, she said.

“Humanitarian Engineering for instance is a rapidly growing field in response to global problems faced by under-served communities. Improving water and air quality, sanitation and hygiene, energy efficiencies and improved infrastructure are among the projects undertaken by organisations such as Engineers Without Borders. Massey University students work in teams to seek solutions to problems,” she said.

Editor’s Note: A team of Agri-Science students and teachers from Massey University have launched a campaign to save our waterways. Please read separate story in this section.

Teaching techniques

Dr Shekar has evolved her own approach to teaching and learning. She believes that solutions should not only match problems but also their context.

She does not believe in assumptions and pre-conceived ideas since engineering is known as a ‘precise science.’

“Students, indeed anyone, should understand the problem fully (in all its dimensions, including social, cultural, economic and environmental), suggest several solutions, discuss and experiment them before choosing the most appropriate of them.

“It is also important to address the cultural and social requirement.  There is plenty of evidence of products that have failed in developing or underserved contexts because of a lack of understanding of the people and their culture, attitudes and behaviour,” Dr Shekar said.

Relevance emphasis

Contextual relevance and usefulness to specified situations, areas and countries becomes critical in the successful marketing of products that transcend from the design and proto-type stage to mass production.

Dr Shekar cited the example of a portable solar device that her Department is currently designing for people in Papua New Guinea.

“This project takes into consideration the average distances travelled by people carrying such devices, the terrain, weather conditions, methods of carrying objects, and the ergonomics of handle sizes. We understand that both men and women carry heavy loads on their shoulders. The first prototype is being trialled in the field in Papua New Guinea,” she said.

She also cited the example of a stove design that requires people to cook in a standing position, when people (mostly women) in these contexts are used to sitting down to cook.

“Initially, most students have no idea of the conditions of end-users. It is during the research phase that they begin to understand the context and the importance of design solutions that would be beneficial,” Dr Shekar said.

Editor’s Note: ‘Engineering change in academic pursuits with Dr Aruna Shekar’ in our next issue.

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Photo:

Dr Aruna Shekar with her student- new technique of teaching and learning

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