Setting the stage for more diversity

Manufacturers’ Monthly caught up with the Sydney president of Engineers Australia, Julie Mikhail, to talk about her activities in promoting science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education and careers.

Julie Mikhail is an engineer with nearly 20 years of experience. Having a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and a master’s degree in electrical engineering, she has spent most of her career working with the Australian government’s Department of Defence, where she has been involved with critical projects, including the replacement of HMAS Manoora’s electrical switchboard and power system.

About two years ago, Mikhail launched her own advisory firm, Engineering Business, using her experience to help engineering companies through the process of bidding for various government tenders.

Mikhail has also been actively involved with Engineers Australia, holding numerous voluntary positions, including chairing the Women in Engineering group for four years and currently serving as the president of Engineers Australia’s Sydney division.

 A hands-on experience

While she was acting as the chair of the Women in Engineering sub-group in Engineers Australia, Mikhail and her colleagues identified the need for a program to introduce female students to the various engineering disciplines and the career prospects in engineering.

“While a lot of universities organise orientation programs for students, most of these programs are mixed (open to both male and female students) and they also tend
to focus mostly on the year 11 and 12 students, as they prepare to make their university choices. But, the feedback we received from our assessment was that while girls were happy to attend the programs along with their male colleagues, they were less likely to get involved in the hands-on activities and less likely to open up and ask questions,” Mikhail told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

“We also wanted to target the students in a lower age group, focusing on the 8th-10th grade students, because we wanted to influence the girls at a younger age,” she said.

The initiative led to a program called “Experience It,” which has been running successfully for the past five years. All major technical universities in Sydney take part in the one-day event – setting up stalls and organising hands-on and fun-filled activities to familiarise girls with the world of engineering.

Julie Mikhail currently serves as the president of Engineers Australia’s Sydney division. Picture credit: Bree Hulme.
Julie Mikhail currently serves as the president of Engineers Australia’s Sydney division. Picture credit: Bree Hulme.

“The girls work in teams to either solve problems, or participate in competitions or challenges. The team-work is exciting for them and they have a lot of fun. In between the programs, speakers from industry, including young or senior engineers, talk to them about the different aspects of engineering,” Mikhail explained.

The last “Experience It” program in Sydney was held in July in the Western Sydney University, where 150 students participated along with their parent or school representative. For the first time this year, Engineers Australia also held a parallel workshop for parents, explaining to them the different career options for students in engineering.

“Engineering has changed a lot since the time when I went to college. When we studied engineering, the main disciplines were chemical, civil, electrical and mechanical engineering. But, nowadays, there are so many new engineering disciplines and it can be confusing for some parents.

“At a recent careers fair where Engineers Australia held a stall, most queries came from the parents; asking us questions like: What is a day in the life of an engineer like? What jobs can our children expect to have? What does it mean to be a mechatronics engineer? And so on,” she said.

The value of mentorship

Engineers Australia has also been organising mentorship programs for female engineers. While the program has been running for more than ten years, Mikhail said it has focused in recent years on the middle stage in the professional women’s career.

“The middle years in a woman engineer’s career are usually the most critical years. This is the time when women usually decide between whether to take a more technical direction in their career or whether to move to managerial positions. It is also usually the time when women are considering having children and that could affect their career,” said Mikhail.

As part of the program, the applicants apply to Engineers Australia requesting a mentor. Engineers Australia then looks into the case and pairs up the mentee with a suitable mentor from the pool of volunteer senior engineers, Mikhail explained.

Attract, retain, celebrate

Mikhail said that events like the Women in Industry Awards are very important in attracting women to jobs that have been historically dominated by men. “While working in the Women in Engineering sub-group, we had three main focus areas: to attract, to retain, and to celebrate women’s role in STEM careers. Events like Women in Industry Awards deliver on all three of those objectives.

“When you celebrate, you recognise people amongst their peers which is very encouraging and rewarding to the recipient. It also provides aspiration for others. If people feel that they are recognised, and have something to aspire to, they are more likely to stay in that career path. So, it helps with the retention part. When you are awarding leaders and you are highlighting and showcasing them to the general public, that also helps with the attraction part,” she said.

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