Community: Dinner celebrating 25th Anniversary of Women in Engineering – WEN

Our playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you.” 

My friend Lola asked me if I wanted to come to a dinner, a swanky kind of dinner. There would be speakers and food. Never the kind of person to look a gift horse in the mouth or pass up a free glass of wine, I said yes! Yes, of course!

Her only condition was that I helped cover the event.

Like men deciding on women’s rights in government, I said “Sure, I’ll write something on Women in Engineering.”

That’s how I found myself on a table next to BE(Hons) girls who are brighter and more brilliant than I ever will be with my dowdy LLB/BA. Women, who are making waves, in STEM. I ate coconut chicken curry next to a rocket ship coder, gorged myself on chocolate pudding next to two bio-medical engineering students, and spilt chardonnay on myself while an electrical engineering student laughed at me. Yeah, I know how to make friends.

The OGGB was stripped of its weird corporate glass: fairy lights and purple lanterns strung aloft, neon WEN signs pulsating in the back, photobooths crammed full and vintage WEN t-shirts from yonks back declaring their female energy. The energy was eager, hopeful and empowering.

The speakers

“It’s important to bring your full self to work and study.”

Rosalind Archer was the crowd favourite. She was the beloved Head of Department. The electrical engineering student turned around to me; according to her, “you’d never try anything” in her class. No sexist comments.  Archer took us on a tour of the history of women in engineering at UOA, revealing a mannequin shrouded in loose pants, a plaid shirt – 25 years ago, when there were only 2 female professors in the entire university. A time where female engineers had to fit under the stereotype of a male engineer to be seen as more acceptable. Archer’s witty comments warmed the room, as she pulled out a pair of steel caps and thumped it on the floor, reminding us to go out to solve problems. Next, was a scuffed pair of cycling shoes to show the importance of grit. She then dangled a pair of ballet shoes to emphasise the creativity in problem solving and wellbeing. Finally, to the delight of everyone, she showed us her very own tall red boots, straight from a more disco-shiny era, to remind us to celebrate difference. Whether that was as a mother, or as part of the rainbow community, we must bring it all to our work and study.

“I’m going to beat the stereotype, I’m going to be a structural engineer.”

Hiba Al-Tiay, a project manager at Downer, shared her own personal journey of leadership as a female. She’d grown up in a family of engineers, so her love of solving problems began young. She walked us through her first day on the job, of sitting in an office full of men in Hi-Vis vests and wondering how she was going to fit in. In this space, everything from the trucks to the machines had feminine connotations, showing the sexist language of construction work. Al-Tiay taught us that true strength can be admitting “I don’t know” on the first day, even though all the workers and machinery may be halted at a standstill, waiting on her command. Her mentor took her under his wing, and patiently explained how to read tests for 20 mins. Al-Tiay shared her growth in becoming a leader, of not being afraid to ask questions and in learning the skills of motivating a team. Changes have occurred in the workplace; she was “never ever made to feel like [she] needed to justify [her] position in [their] company because of [her] gender.” She believes in the day female engineers are the norm, not the exception.

Her quoting of Marianne Williamson spoke to the room:

Our playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you.

The last speaker of the Night, Jennifer Murphy, knew she had found herself in a tough spot. Right before dessert was to be served. She told us she’d kept it short because she was eager for dessert too. But her insightful wisdom was never sacrificed. She gave the room career advice on networking, passion and staying true to yourself. She reflected that she used to be the only female on site, but that was all changing.

This optimistic theme carried across all the speakers. Talking to the girls at my table, it was interesting to note that depending on their specialisations, they felt variation in the way women were treated. Bio-medical engineering has a higher female to male ratio, although I was told by an electrical engineering student that she had never been taught by a female lecturer in her specialisation. The importance of mentorship and seeing successful women as teachers and in the workplace should never be undermined. WEN is a tight-knit and supportive organisation that provides the opportunities for progressive discussions in challenging gender stereotypes. It also works to improve female representation in STEM.

Q&A with Megana and Lola, leaders at WEN

What does WEN DO?

There are about 25 WEN leaders involved in organising events aimed at developing and celebrating female engineers and providing links with the industry. WEN provides support to female engineering students from first year through to post-grad, aiming to encourage more females into engineering.

Why is WEN necessary?

We are still lacking in both the number of female students studying engineering and the number of female engineers progressing to leadership positions in the industry. WEN aims to improve these statistics by promoting STEM subjects, building confidence and skills, and linking WEN students with more experienced mentors.