Tomorrow is International Women In Engineering Day, an awareness campaign that aims to raise the profile of females in the profession, while encouraging girls to consider the field. But, just like the other Stem fields - science, technology and mathematics - women are poorly represented. A recent snapshot suggested just one in 10 chartered professional engineers in New Zealand were women. Despite growing efforts in the sciences to improve diversity, that field, too, remained male-dominated. Science reporter Jamie Morton spoke about the problem with two inspirational figures heading to Dunedin for next month's New Zealand International Science Festival. They are Sian Cleaver, mission systems engineer at Airbus Defence and Space in the UK, and Ally Watson, chief executive of Melbourne-born social enterprise Code Like A Girl, and recently named one of Australia's most influential female entrepreneurs.

When you were growing up, were your aspirations of entering Stem ever questioned? Did you feel there was any sort of prejudice even before you began your studies?

Sian Cleaver (SC):

At the age of about 4, I decided I wanted to be an astronaut.


I really don't know why, but it probably had something to do with a visit to Kennedy Space Centre on a family holiday - either that, or I was just born to be an astronaut.

I told my parents at the time that I wanted to be the first woman to have babies in space, and they must have supported me, because I continued to hold this ambition throughout my entire school and university career.

In fact, I still hold that ambition – I'd love to be an astronaut one day.

For me, there was never any doubt that I would go down the "Stem route" and pursue a career in something related to space exploration.

I actually quite liked being a bit different from everyone else at school, in that I had this big ambition and that I was doing my best to work towards it.

So no, I never felt any prejudice at all.

I was surrounded by supportive family, teachers and friends, and pursuing my goal seemed really natural to me.

I only started to notice that there were fewer women around me when I was at university, and then again when I first started my job.


It just wasn't something that crossed my mind until that point, although that may have had something to do with the fact I went to an all-girls secondary school where studying Stem subjects was the norm.

Ally Watson (AW): Entering Stem didn't occur to me until I was 19, it wasn't an aspiration of mine when growing up.

After art school rejection I was left with limited options and decided to try my hand at computer science.

Little did I know how inherently creative working in technology was and I fell in love with it instantly.

Growing up I had no exposure to coding education, I didn't have any knowledge to what careers were out there and it's unlikely I would have been able to name a single woman who worked in technology.

I would often reflect on how easily I could have chosen another path or career and missed the opportunity of a lifetime.

This is when I realised there was work to be done and started "Code Like a Girl" to make sure girls growing up today had a different experience to mine.

When you entered your fields, what barriers did you come across? Was it noticeably harder being a woman than it would have been for your male counterparts?
SC: I don't think it was any harder for me than my male counterparts at the start.

In fact, I always felt like I had a bit of an advantage over my male peers, because I stood out from the crowd by being the only female in interview groups, or later in meeting rooms.

It's only as I've progressed through my career that I've started to wonder whether I'm up against any barriers.

I do feel some sort of pressure now to "prove myself" and work that little bit harder than my male peers in order to progress, but I don't know whether that's because I'm very attuned to this now by my involvement with diversity organisations such as Wise (Women In Science and Engineering).

I've also definitely put pressure on myself to get to a certain level in my career by a certain age, because I know I'd like to start a family at some point, and I'm worried this might slow things down career-wise for me.

But this is very much pressure that I put on myself and it might be something that I'm worrying about unnecessarily – I just don't know yet.

AW: When I was studying computer science I felt like an imposter from day one.

A lot of my classmates had grown up with consoles and had been coding from a young age.

They were confident and competitive which made the task of asking for help and raising your hand with a simple question all that much more difficult.

It wasn't so much my gender that made me different but my upbringing, hobbies and passions felt like a mismatch to the computer science norm.

I had to be resilient as the learning curve was steep for me but I slowly realised my differences were my strengths and I can't stress enough how thirsty the industry is for diversity.

Statistics tell us there's a big diversity problem right across Stem. Why do you think we've been so slow to close the gap?
SC: I think a lot of it comes down to a lack of understanding of what a career in Stem means.

What it looks like day-to-day.

Stem is so broad, and words like "engineering" in particular aren't very descriptive or helpful when you're trying to understand what it means.

Everyone knows what a doctor does, but how many people know what a systems engineer does?

Or a research scientist?

As a girl, Sian Cleaver dreamed of being an astronaut. Now a mission systems engineer with Airbus, she'd still like to be one. Photo / Supplied
As a girl, Sian Cleaver dreamed of being an astronaut. Now a mission systems engineer with Airbus, she'd still like to be one. Photo / Supplied

We need to do more to show the sorts of careers that are on offer within Stem, and explain what it's like to do those jobs.

We also need to show just how broad Stem is.

I'm pretty sure that for every interest or hobby, there is a related career within Stem.

If we can get that message across, then maybe Stem careers will appeal to a broader audience.

People will start to realise that there is something on offer within Stem for them, even if they don't see themselves as being a "sciencey" person.

AW: I think there are inherent inequalities in our society, as well as gender biased societal norms which have discouraged women from pursuing Stem areas.

It's important to reshape home and school cultures and to respond powerfully when stereotypes or comments about women are toxic or limiting.

Computer scientists don't always come along by accident; they're made, not born.

The way we are raised and conditioned have a huge influence on the paths we choose as careers.

Whilst we introduce new curriculums and create more pathways into technology the cultural and societal changes required to close the gap will take time.

Are you confident that real, meaningful change is happening?
SC: Yes, I think that a lot of effort is being put into encouraging young people into Stem, particularly young women.

This is certainly true in the UK – organisations like Women In Science and Engineering are committed to tapping into female talent, and I'm seeing more and more Stem-based outreach activities going on to help with this.

More generally, it's great to see a general enthusiasm for science being shared by the media in the UK.

For example, when British astronaut Tim Peake went into space for the first time, there was so much publicity, and so many special events put on to celebrate this.

I think that's fantastic – we need to show just how exciting Stem can be and inspire the next generation.

Within the workplace, I also see diversity of all kinds becoming a hot topic.

Businesses now realise that diverse teams can really benefit them, and can actually make them more profitable.

Where I work, at Airbus, there are all sorts of diversity initiatives now in place to try and improve inclusion and diversity, and this is obviously a really good thing.

We're a long way off having an equal number of men and women in the company - particularly in more senior roles - and there's still lots more work to be done, but the recognition that we need to work towards this is a good start and I'm feeling positive about the future.

My only concern is that things aren't happening quickly enough.

We've still got a long way to go, and I don't think we can afford to wait a few generations before we become truly inclusive and diverse.

We need to ramp up the pace now.

AW: With movements such as #MeToo and TimesUp allowing important and meaningful conversations around the world educating many people on the issues that women face today and in our future, I believe that we are on the cusp of great change.

What's the message that you'd both ultimately like to get across to young people thinking about a career in Stem today - especially young women?
SC: Don't be put off by one small part of engineering.

I remember being at school thinking "I don't want to be an engineer. I just want to work in the space industry".

At that time I thought that engineering was all civil-engineering related and I didn't realise how a huge proportion of the jobs within the space industry are engineering-related.

That's why I ended up studying physics and astronomy at university rather than engineering – I just didn't understand what it was, or how broad it was.

However, at least I was studying something that I enjoyed, and that would be my second message.

Do what you enjoy, and don't give up on your ambitions, even if they seem a bit far-flung and statistically unachievable.

Sometimes you just need a certain ambition to start your journey on an interesting and fulfilling career path.

You don't necessarily have to achieve the end ambition, so long as you've had a good time along the way.

AW: The industry has been male, pale and stale for quite some time and it is thirsty for diversity.

It's an incredible time to be a woman entering Stem.

There is an abundance of opportunity as companies finally clock on to both the performance and financial gains that the increase of women can bring.

It's likely that you'll often be the only woman in the room, the only woman on the team, or sometimes the entire office - but don't go at it alone, there are many women in the same situation, find ways to connect with them to support each other.

For more information about the New Zealand International Science Festival, or to book tickets, visit the website.