Hunter female engineers aim to improve gender balance

Eye on prize: Rebecca Sykes said her degree had been "challenging and hard at times but so worthwhile". She is considering a PhD next year. "I want to keep learning and doing research." Picture: Marina Neil
Eye on prize: Rebecca Sykes said her degree had been "challenging and hard at times but so worthwhile". She is considering a PhD next year. "I want to keep learning and doing research." Picture: Marina Neil

REBECCA Sykes’ mum used to tell her she should pursue engineering at university.

“But I don’t have much memory of that,” Ms Sykes, 25, said.

“I didn’t take it on board, I thought ‘No, that’s silly’. She was the only one who had ever said it. 

“Maths and physics were my best subjects but I didn’t have [any other] people telling me to consider it.

“I had also thought engineering was just hard hats and buildings, but that’s not it at all.”

Ms Sykes has one semester left on her four-year Bachelor of Engineering (Honours) (Electrical) degree at the University of Newcastle, which she describes as “one of the best things I’ve ever done”.

But it wasn’t a straight forward path to her destination.

Speaking on International Women in Engineering Day, Ms Sykes said she wanted female students to be given a comprehensive picture of what engineering entails, plus ample encouragement to join the male-dominated industry.

“I do wonder what would have happened if I was exposed to what engineering really was earlier.”

Growing up, Ms Sykes’ father set her puzzles to solve and she excelled in a primary school challenge to build a simple electrical circuit for a beacon.

She studied maths, chemistry, physics and biology in year 12.

“My whole life I’ve been prepping for engineering without any of us even knowing,” she said.

“I know for a lot of girls in engineering, it was something that wasn’t ever mentioned.

“Especially for high achievers, it was something they were never pushed towards, which is outrageous.”

Ms Sykes completed one year of radiography, which she chose based on her interest in MRI and CT scan equipment, and one year of midwifery.

She decided to give university “one more try” and after ruling out areas she wasn’t interested in, landed on engineering.

“People complain about going to work on a Monday, but I’m excited to go to university every day,” she said.

“I feel I can do anything with my degree.

“It gives you tools and teaches you to think in different ways to solve real world problems and not just with roads and bridges but health, renewables and new and exciting things.”

Ms Sykes said there was still a long way to go before females engineers were not perceived as an anomaly and engineering became a balanced field. 

She estimated there were another two women in her degree who would graduate at the same time, and women accounted for roughly 10 per cent of students in her classes.

“When a woman achieves something – a job or award – a lot of the time it’s put down to her gender and that takes away from the hard work she puts in and that’s really frustrating,” she said. 

“But the academics have never treated me differently – there is a lot of support out there.”