03 October 2019
Despite great progress to educate on the benefits of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects from a young age, there’s still underrepresentation of women in STEM fields in Australia. Lydia Gentle, BHP Mitsubishi Alliance (BMA) Engineer, was recently awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia and named on the Queen’s Birthday 2019 Honour’s List for her passion and drive to promote the work of engineers around the world, and her efforts to encourage the next generation to take up careers in STEM. She shares her own experiences and explores the pivotal role teachers have across the country.
I’ve been an engineer for the past 15 years and my career has taken me all over the world from industrial projects and high-rises to mining, where I am today. But it’s not been without its challenges. Females are not often seen as engineers. When I worked on construction sites, I had to overcome the stereotype of being mistaken for the ‘admin girl’. My male counterparts turned up to work and were accepted, whereas I had to prove I was capable. I’ve also had to put up with behaviour that has not always been respectful of females, however it has taught me grit and resilience.
I grew up in a small country town in Queensland, Australia during the 1980s and 90s. My dad was a sugar cane farmer, so I spent much of my early childhood outdoors – mucking about on tractors, and making things. I enjoyed learning too, especially maths and science.
STEM skills are used in practically every career in some way. Many companies wouldn’t be able to operate without them.
My teachers for these subjects (both male) actively encouraged me to choose maths and science in my final years of school. When the time came to apply for university, my maths teacher suggested I study engineering as I had the ‘maths head’ for it. I didn’t know what an engineer was, let alone did!
By contrast, my parents’ childhood was somewhat different. They migrated from Italy and never had the opportunity to finish their primary and secondary education. Looking back, my parents were the main reason I went to university and from who I inherited my strong work ethic. However, my teachers influenced my chosen career path. All it took were those few well-timed conversations.
It wasn’t easy though. STEM subjects are difficult. I got answers wrong all the time, and it knocked my confidence as I grew older. I know the same is true for many STEM students today, and they need more encouragement to continue when the content gets tough. I also wasn’t aware I was choosing a predominately-male career path until I started university. Disappointingly, it’s not something that has improved since I’ve been an engineer.
STEM skills are used in practically every career in some way. Many companies wouldn’t be able to operate without them. On top of this, we know inclusive and diverse teams are good for business. At BHP, our most inclusive and gender diverse operations outperform the company average on a range of dimensions, including safety, productivity and culture. It’s critical that industries, such as resources, have access to a diverse range of STEM professionals. However, recent mathematical sciences research*, and the latest Government statistics show there’s much more we must do to help address the gap in STEM skills and qualifications in Australia.
We cannot underestimate the influence teachers have on shaping and encouraging the next generation in Australia.
I recently partnered with Queensland Minerals & Energy Academy, and ran a session at the Queensland Museum with teachers and guidance counsellors to help educate them on the work of engineers. A significant percentage didn’t understand what engineers did, the paths that led to a career in engineering, and were therefore not encouraging their students to study the required STEM subjects. Engineers design everything from space shuttles to trains, roads and mobile phones. If we focused more on educating students on what engineers do, we would encourage a lot more people to this exciting career. Female role models have an important seat at the table too – it’s difficult to be something you cannot see.
Engineering isn’t an isolated issue. STEM subjects are broad and there are dozens more examples of the many career paths available. We cannot underestimate the influence teachers have on shaping and encouraging the next generation in Australia.
Imagine Australia’s future workforce if positive STEM experiences at school, such as mine, are commonplace in 10 years’ time.