Women push engineering as a job that isn't just for the boys

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 March, 2014, 4:28am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 March, 2014, 3:56pm

Think of engineering and you may imagine a masculine world of hard hats, construction sites and big machinery. But a local university and an NGO are coming together in a drive to make the subject a more attractive option for women.

The University of Science and Technology is working with the Women's Foundation on initiatives to encourage women to take their place among the professionals putting together the smartphones, software and technology networks of the future.

The drive includes an online auction, launched yesterday, of art by Susan Yuen Su-min, a computer scientist by training and head of ANZ bank's Hong Kong operation.

Just 12 per cent of HKUST's computer science, computer engineering and electronics undergraduates are women, down from 14 per cent in 2000.

"Law and medicine have managed to reach gender parity, but in my three decades of teaching we've seen no change," said Lau Kei-may, chair professor at HKUST's department of electronic and computer engineering. Lau, a founding member of the university's Women Faculty Association, says one problem is the perception of engineering as a job that is not creative.

"Look at the dresses from the 2005 Oscars and 2014 Oscars - do you see much difference? Look at a phone from 2005 and one from 2014," said Lau. "That's a real difference. That's real creativity."

She also sees problems in schools, where teachers and counsellors may lack understanding of what the job of an engineer entails, as well as gender bias in a community which sees engineering as men's work.

To change perceptions, Lau and her colleague Professor Pascale Fung are trying to make themselves visible female figureheads for the profession, by running summer camps and visiting schools as recruiters. They look to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as an example of a university that has worked to reduce gender imbalance.

"They weren't just picking them because they were women, but because they were the best students," Fung said of MIT.

About three years ago, the Women's Foundation set up its Women in Engineering and Science (Wise) scholarship to encourage women to study at HKUST, but faced barriers. Anti-discrimination laws prevented money from the university's general scholarship fund from being diverted to fund scholarships open only to women, while attempts to raise funds from elsewhere proved unsuccessful. "No one seemed interested in funding women," Fung said.

The art auction, which runs until April 3, will raise money for the Wise scholarships.