“At the end of the day, engineers engineer things to make our lives better. And since the female constitute about half of the human population, I believe a woman’s contribution will be just as valuable and obligatory as any man’s.”
Mei Wan, Emerson Solutions engineer.
Worldwide there is a deficit of women who have taken up engineering as a profession.
A lot of good people and institutions are working to change this but we have a long way to go.
Today, we meet a Melbourne-based engineer to glean some insight about her work and give her a platform to encourage others to contemplate a career in this dynamic profession.
Martine Harte: Congrats on your career as a woman in STEM, can you please shed some light on your title for us, what is a solutions architect?
Emerson solutions women in engineering Mei Wan:
In my role as a solution architect for Emerson Automation Solutions, I use my technical and business skills to design an IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things) solution that will enable our customers benefit from digital transformation. Think of it as the smart home technology (e.g. Amazon Alexa and Google Home) scaled up and ruggedized for industrial applications.
You were formerly a senior systems engineer at Emerson Automation Solutions, what was it about this role that spoke to you?
Mei Wan: Firstly, it is the opportunity to explore and apply evolving automation technologies. Secondly, the ability bring a concept to fruition. Last but not least, the variety in assignments: one day I could be sitting in a customer’s office designing control systems. Next day, I could be flying in a helicopter on my way to a remote island for site commissioning work.
Were you always interested in these fields?
Mei Wan: No, I wasn’t familiar with process automation until I started working at Emerson in 2005. But it did not take me long to fall in love with it, thanks to a great team and variation in work scope.
We know there is a lack of women and girls choosing stem subjects at university why do think this problem persists?
Mei Wan: First thing that came into my mind is longstanding gender stereotype. One can easily relate to this stereotype in any toy shop.
The girls’ aisle will be filled with dolls and toy kitchen set (which help develop nursing and domestic skills) while the boys’ aisle will be filled with train sets, LEGO kits and toy toolbox (which help develop spatial, construction and motor skills). This together with other social stereotypes have led girls to believe that they are not as good as boys in STEM subjects.
Personally, I believe the stereotype whereby women are the gatherers while the men are the hunters was valid and justifiable in the past but the society has since moved on.
There are now facilities, regulations and technologies available to help mothers return to work and fathers to take on more child-caring responsibilities. So there are no longer valid reasons to hang onto the gender stereotype, especially in a first world country like Australia.
What do you see as the roadblocks for women engineers in general?
Mei Wan: Mindset. Once I was giving a STEM presentation as an engineer to a group of Year 10 girls. Most of them, including the class teacher, thought that all engineers work with engines and go home with greasy overalls. As a result, they don’t want to choose this profession because they don’t want to be ‘stuck’ working in a noisy and harsh environment.
Do you have any ideas to incentivise more women into stem roles?
Mei Wan: We can educate the general public that the engineering profession is very diverse and there’s something for everyone.
For example, there are electrical engineers who keep power stations running so that we have electricity at work and at home, civil engineers who design and construct tunnels and bridges, chemical engineers who design and develop chemical processes to produce fuel, drugs, food and many other products, traffic engineers who plan and design traffic operations of roads, streets and highways so that we can commute more safely, mechanical engineers who design machines that make our lives better, for example elevators, escalators, air-conditioning system, car suspension system etc.
At the end of the day, engineers engineer things to make our lives better. And since the female constitute about half of the human population, I believe a woman’s contribution will be just as valuable and obligatory as any man’s.
How do you see us working together to change this?
Mei Wan: Most people, especially kids, know what a dentist, doctor or teacher does because these are the professions they interact with. It is also widely known what policemen, lawyers, surgeons do because of tv shows and movies.
So my crazy suggestion is to make a great sitcom, similar to The Big Bang Theory and how it portrayed scientists as humans. Through this funny but informative tv show, the public will learn how prevalent engineers can be and how interesting their career can be.
Great suggestion! Why do you believe diversity is important in modern Australia?
Mei Wan: Being brought up in a multicultural Singapore, I have learnt that diversity adds colours to the society while unity/harmony is a key enabler for progress. In addition, Singapore has limited natural resources and so I have always appreciated that a productive and innovative workforce is our only hope for survival. Australia, on the other hand, has been blessed with rich natural resources. But we should not and cannot afford to take this for granted.
To keep Australia competitive in the world, we need to teach our younger generation how to embrace the changes that come with automation, globalisation and collaboration. On top of that, we need to educate them how to make work “work” for them.
For example, they should know how to make their work meaningful by seeking stimulating tasks, make their work interesting by promoting good workplace culture or strive work-life balance with flexible working hours and/or using technology to enhance their work mobility.