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Women biomedical engineers forging careers in Queensland's BTS

The International Women’s Day 2018 theme ‘press for progress’ couldn’t be more relevant for two Townsville Hospital and Health Service biomedical engineers who have forged careers  in a traditionally male-dominated industry.

Anneliese Dickson said it was long history of engineers in her family that led her to biomedical engineering. “My sister, grandfathers and several uncles and cousins are all engineers of some kind,” she said. “The curiosity to learn how things function and the drive to design them to be more efficient seemed to be in our blood. “I chose biomedical engineering because in school I was fascinated and amazed by the inner workings of the machine that is the human body and I still am.”

 Anneliese said that gender equity had made positive progress in her profession over the past 10 years but there was still a way to go. “My graduate year of biomedical engineers was equal parts men and women which was great but in other fields of engineering women were certainly a minority and are a minority in the engineering industry as a whole,” she said. “When I began my career as biomedical technician I was the only female technician in the workshops I worked in.”

 Anneliese said she attributed the disparate amount of women compared to men to legacy cultural norms influencing unconscious bias. “Our workforce is made of up to five generations, where different cultural views inherently impact our unconscious thoughts and responses,” she said. “An example may be when a female asks to leave work early, and another co-worker assumes it is because she needs to pick up children from school when she might have no children at all. “Similar unconscious bias responses can dictate career and education paths from early ages due to cultural influences such as family, media and tradition.”

 Anneliese said gender cultural norms did not influence her choices growing up. “It was completely normal for me to pursue sports like soccer, BMX and AFL and academic subjects such as mathematics, chemistry and physics,” she said.

“Quite oblivious to these gender biases and cultural norms growing up; I did not realise there were still some generations that were not as accepting of female engineers. “It was not until I had processed a comment from my grandfather where he was adamant that my sister and I would not be able to get jobs as engineers that I realised. “I also remember conversations with my grandmother where she expressed how lucky we were with how many options we have in our career paths, when her only options were as a wife, nurse or teacher.”

Anneliese said that simply having women working in traditionally male-dominated fields contributed to progress. “As it becomes commonplace to find females in these fields, regardless of the ratio, the more our legacy cultural norms will change both in the workplace and at home,” she said.  

“International Women's Day is to celebrate how far we've come, but also stands as a reminder of what we can still do to achieve gender parity.”

 Fellow biomedical engineer Samantha Hickey said she was the only female graduate in her electrical engineering degree. “There were times at university where gender stereotypes were definitely present, for example, I encountered situations where the female was expected to undertake traditionally more feminine roles such as secretary in a group project,” she said. “I was also labelled the ‘diversity hire’ on more than one occasion during university placements.

“However, when I commenced as a qualified biomedical engineer it was refreshing to see that a lot of progress had been made toward equal gender ratios but there is still more work to be done. “The number of women in engineering has increased over the years, however; it is important to continue to press for gender equality to reduce the unconscious bias for future generations of women.”

Samantha said she was delighted by the importance placed on International Women’s Day.

“It’s affirming that we continue to celebrate international women’s day and to aim to fulfill the still not realised aim of attaining gender equality for women throughout the world.”

Reprinted from Townsville Hospital and Health Service's Facebook page:

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