Why do we need more women in coastal and how do we facilitate change?

This talk was originally presented by Tanya Stul, Chairperson of the National Committee on Coastal and Ocean Engineering (NCCOE) within Engineers Australia (EA).

Address presented at the first Women in Coastal Geosciences and Engineering (WICGE) sundowner at Coasts & Ports 2017, 21 June 2017.

I am the Chairwoman of the NCCOE. The only woman on the committee and within the corresponding members.

Why do I think it is important to have more women in coastal and how do we facilitate change? This topic is also applicable to those in ocean and port engineering, but I will refer to coastal in this talk as it is my focal area of work.

Why is it important?

Up until this point in my career I’ve focused on being a better coastal engineer, addressing broader risks in the coastal engineering profession and to coastal management in Western Australia and in Australia. It is only in the last few months that I’ve been encouraged to assist in supporting the representation of women in coastal engineering.

So, I then need to ask myself, why should I push for this? There are three main reasons for me.

1. Women use the coast. We should have a say in how it is researched, valued, managed, developed and modified.

2. Why restrict our capacity to find the best people to only 50% of the population?

3. Engineers work collaboratively. General diversity in approaches to problem solving and communication will lead to better outcomes as a team.

My background and my actions

Upbringing. Education was important in my family given the opportunities that were limited to my grandparents as refugees of WW2 or recent immigrants to Australia. I was also aware I was a younger sister to an older brother, which meant I subconsciously tried to prove I was as good as the boys and interestingly I chose a male-dominated profession.

Male mentors. I have had and continue to have, an amazing network of male mentors. They have supported me because of my nature and my work, rather than because I am a woman (I believe). The exception being my female chemistry teacher in high school who encouraged me to pursue both science and engineering, believing I’d be bored doing just one. I’d like to acknowledge Ian Eliot, Matt Eliot, Dave Basco, Chari Pattiaratchi, Bob Gozzard and Bill Andrew specifically for pushing me and training me. Through Engineers Australia I had the opportunity to win the DN Foster Award in 2005 (note 12 of the 26 winners to date have been women). The National Committee members encouraged me at that conference. Those same members welcome me onto the NCCOE in 2008 and have always taken the time to answer my questions and assist me in finding solutions when I could see a risk to our profession.

Why do I get to be so lucky? What is my role now to assist others to have such support and opportunities?

Right now I am a visible woman in coastal engineering. I’m the Chair of the NCCOE, I’m on the Civil College Board in EA, I’m a member of COPEP in WA and I’ve joined WICGE.

I choose to:

  •  Submit papers, present and chair sessions at conferences.
  • Support one of WICGE’s aims of improving representation. This includes at NCCOE events like this one. At Coasts & Ports 2017 females represented 16% of the speakers, 16 of the attendees, 4% of the session chairs and 0% of the keynotes. I believe this is our best yet, but we still have a way to go.
  • Call out unconscious gender bias when I see it, in others and in myself.
  • Mentor other women.
  • Change the method by which we encourage and select national committee members to ensure greater diversity.
  •  Bring together the women in coastal engineering and geosciences in Perth and Western Australia (my goal for July).
  • Focus specifically on retention of women in coastal consulting focusing on the range of 3 to 15 years beyond university.
  • Speak at occasional school STEM events particularly in primary school, via my partner who is a science specialist teacher.
  • Connect people, in part to benefit female colleagues.

How can we all facilitate change?

I believe all the information we need to improve the opportunities and representation of women in

coastal is already documented. The question is, what role do you want to play at this point in your

life and how will that role change as your life circumstances and work responsibilities change?

I see five life stages that I’d like you to consider as to what you can do as men and women to improve diversity in our field.

Stage 1: Student and early career.

  • Seek mentorship.
  • Join committees and organisations.
  • Help organise CPD and networking events.
  • Attend events.

Stage 2: 3-10 years out from university (You are focusing on your own career development and

considering having children).

  • Go to schools as STEM advocates and particularly for female students.
  • Challenge your subconscious gender bias in your own thinking.
  • Push to get training.
  • If you are male, collaborate with and support your female colleagues.
  • Write papers, attend conferences and chair sessions.
  • Continue to seek mentorship.

Stage 3: 10-20 years out from university (You are striving for seniority and tenure, more

management roles and you have more responsibility. You either have a young family or have

chosen not to have kids)

  • This is a key time.
  • Push to direct and change the profession to be what you want it to be.
  • Mentor and be mentored.
  • Acknowledge over commitment (one of my issues).
  • Influence your organisation to have targets, for example Engineers Australia now has a 30% gender diversity target on boards, and roles that are family friendly.
  • Take measures to retain women in your organisation after they are 30.

Stage 4: 20+ years out from university (You are Professor/Associate Professor/Senior technical

role/Director and post children leaving home or you have older children).

As a woman, the key is probably to be a visible woman in this life stage.

For everyone:

  • Are you allocating opportunities equitably?
  • Are you sending junior females to conferences to speak? Are they writing papers?
  • Are you making sure women are assigned tough and career-defining opportunities in your organisation?
  • Plus any of the aspects in the 10-20 year out from university stage, particularly changing your organisational structure and mentoring.

Stage 5: Retirement/semi-retirement from work.

  • Challenge the scientist and engineers junior to you.
  • Mentor and in particular, help train others.
  • Give people reading lists, argue about processes and fundamental principles.
  • You studied hydraulics, you’ve made mistakes with designs and learnt from them.
  • Help us as we live in a corporate world often lacking in adequate on-the-job coastal training. This is my most treasured guidance I receive from colleagues and mentors in their 60s to 80s.

Lastly, we can all encourage primary school age girls that engineering and science are cool. Next birthday, consider books or toys that are about girls who are engineers and scientists. For example, Goldie Blox toys and Andrea Beaty’s books Rosie Revere Engineer and Ada Twist, Scientist.

I could say more, but that is more than enough. I hope my process of changing my thinking on this topic has opened up your mind to something new as well.

I encourage you to go home and do one thing differently as a start. We all have a part to play.

Thank you.

Posted on: 09/08/2017, by :