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Australia, we still have a problem with gender equality, and the COVID-19 pandemic is making things worse.
Despite the female workforce participation rate reaching record levels in 2019 and some progress in closing the gender pay gap, our collective ‘look in the mirror’ remains confronting.
In September 2020, we discovered that the number of women running the country’s top 200 ASX-listed companies has fallen over the past four years. There are now only 10 female CEOs of ASX 200 companies, which is the lowest since the census began four years ago.
In STEM and engineering, the situation feels equally concerning. Australia’s STEM skilled workforce is just 16% women, a number that falls to 13% when we focus on engineering. It’s a recognised issue, and one that Engineers Australia and the Male Champions of Change in STEM are working hard to address.
Dr Clara Usma-Mansfield, Lecturer in Engineering Design at Deakin University, is one of a growing group of academics who are keen to play their part by broadening perceptions of what engineering means and how its disciplines are applied.
She’s doing that in the world of sport, where 47% of highly engaged, passionate sports fans are women and 65.4% of women in Australia participate in sport and physical activity at least three times a week.
‘When people think about engineering, they tend to imagine buildings and bridges, cars and construction sites, but it’s a broad profession with room for everyone to develop themselves in their areas of passion,’ says Dr Usma-Mansfield.
‘For me it was sport and inclusion. My PhD included a spell helping the Australian wheelchair rugby (commonly known as murderball) team to prepare for the London 2012 Paralympic Games, where they won gold!’
‘Our focus was on personalising wheelchair design – to make the chairs feel like extensions of the athletes’ bodies – and optimising performance to positions on court. Athletic and equipment output is the pure engineering side of the equation, but I love the challenge of balancing this with athlete feedback to achieve objective and customised solutions.’
'When people think about engineering, they tend to imagine buildings and bridges, cars and construction sites, but it’s a broad profession with room for everyone to develop themselves in their areas of passion'
Dr Clara Usma-Mansfield,
School of Engineering, Deakin University
Dr Usma-Mansfield continues to work in sport and assistive technology, with a focus on user-centred design. Recent research projects have included developing the latest technology for wheelchair gloves and high-end mouthguards for contact sports.
Her passion for seeking an edge in sport – quantifying feedback and developing highly personalised products – is a ‘feel vs real’ juggle, which emerges as a strong theme in the role of engineers in sport. What’s more, it’s an area in which female academics in Australia are excelling.
Dr Samantha Hoffmann, Lecturer in Applied Exercise And Sport Science at Deakin University, whose sports garment and wearable technology research involves working closely with engineers, is always seeking to walk a similar tightrope.
‘The improvement in sporting apparel technology at all levels in recent years is extraordinary,’ says Dr Hoffmann.
‘However, the monitoring and assessment that forms the focus of my research is such a key part of the equation. In the high performance sports apparel area, we have a strong focus on athlete perceptions of how the garments feel during performance, which complements the physiological monitoring of factors such as core temperature and the impact of the garment on exercise efficiency.’
‘I’d love more women to join this exciting blend of sport science, engineering and empathy,’ says Dr Hoffmann, who notes that engineering is not alone in its battle for gender equality in sport, with 92% of strength and conditioning coaching roles in Australia taken up by men.
As well as looking at high performance sports apparel, Dr Hoffmann has been applying similar principles to apparel for ‘weekend warriors’ through her work with engineering PhD student Rory Purdie on the design of sports bras for running, in collaboration with Lululemon Athletica.
‘Breast pain and discomfort can be a major inhibitor to exercise, so our research aims to improve the experience for women,’ says Purdie.
Incorporating comfort into the design process will increase the chance of women maintaining healthy, active lifestyles because they will be wearing garments designed specifically to optimise comfort. Not many people think about the role of engineers in activewear fashion, but that’s the reality. The world’s leading brands are investing in this area.’
‘However, there are still many research gaps around female-specific sports apparel. The opportunity to make an impact on reducing barriers for women, by designing garments they love, is incredibly motivating,’ concludes Purdie.
Dr Natalie Saunders, co-director of Deakin’s Centre for Sport Research, is delighted to be working with such talented colleagues: ‘There’s no doubt female engineers and sport scientists are changing the face of sport in Australia. The challenge is to surface and celebrate their stories, and find role models to inspire girls in schools around Australia. That’s how we’ll win hearts and minds, drive diversity of thinking and make STEM and engineering an environment that is known for gender equality.’
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