“I was in Uganda when I found out,” said Jessica Weakley winner of the 2023 Natasha Linard Scholarship for Women in Engineering and Technology.
“I cried when I read the email!”
It was the best news, but perhaps not the best moment for an emotional catharsis.
As an intern representing Engineering Ministries International (EMI), Weakley was about to present her team’s initial design for a vocational school master plan for the New Dawn Africa Foundation, a ministry for women and children who are HIV positive.
She quickly composed herself and soldiered on.
Her tears were tears of joy, but also relief. Her semester of service with the Colorado-based EMI had required financial support from her church as well as 18 months of 30-hour work weeks as a tutor for fellow undergraduates in mechanics, electronics and thermodynamics at the ANU School of Engineering.
In her fourth year studying a double degree in Engineering and International Security Studies, Weakley sees financial freedom as a pathway to opportunity.
The Natasha Linard scholarship is awarded in honour of a trailblazing woman in engineering who inspired her peers and helped shape the ANU engineering program at its founding.
Receiving the scholarship was especially meaningful to Weakley, as it offers her an opportunity to encourage and inspire future generations in turn.
Now back in Colorado Springs attending ANU classes remotely at night while interning at EMI during the day, Weakley paused to reflect on her Uganda trip — her first time working in a developing country and her first visit to Africa.
“I’m still processing it,” she said.
“So much more cultural training is needed for engineers who are going into these kinds of contexts. Working cross-culturally is incredibly demanding. There are a myriad of reasons outside of the technical realm why your solution might not work.”
Putting communities and cultural context at the centre of engineering design is the core tenant of Humanitarian Engineering, an increasingly popular minor at the ANU School of Engineering in close partnership with Engineers Without Borders (EWB), where Weakley serves as the Regional Marketing and Engagement Officer for the ACT Chapter.
She has visited schools around the ACT and New South Wales with the aim of bringing more females and First Nations students into the engineering field.
She sees Humanitarian Engineering as a way to achieve more diversity in engineering, and at the same time encourage engineers of all genders to have more social and cultural literacy.
Humanitarian engineering vs. the gender gap
Engineers Australia has been sounding the alarm about a national shortage estimated at 30,000 engineers and forecast to reach 100,000 by 2030. The shortage, they say, is due to border closures, falling university enrolments and budget cuts brought on by the pandemic, coupled with growing demand due to the clean energy transition.
Weakley’s honours research project, which she will begin when she returns to Australia in July, will look into the impact of Humanitarian Engineering in the context of that shortage. Bringing more women into engineering is crucial for the national and the global interest.
Asked why women make up only 11.2 per cent of engineers currently working in Australia, Weakley began with a requisite nod to the sensitive nature of what she had to say, then offered a candid analysis.
“I think females tend to care more about the ‘who’ and males tend to care more about the ‘how’,” Weakley said.
“I don’t know whether this is socialised or whether it’s inherent, but women tend to gravitate towards more empathetic people-based professions.”
The problem is a common misconception that engineering is not about people. That will need to change if ANU and Australia are to help cure the gender imbalance in the field.
“Humanitarian engineering offers this really interesting context to be able to do hard technical things, but with a powerful people impact,” she said. “That’s something that really appeals to a lot of women.”
Only 14% of graduate engineers in Australia are women, but the Humanitarian Engineering cohort at ANU is majority female.
“Our Engineers Without Borders executive committee is all female. Our volunteer roster would is 90% female,” Weakley said.
“When I was in high school, I had this misconception that engineering was just building bridges and roads and that I would end up working on trains or something,” she said. “That just really didn’t interest me at all.”
But that changed when one of her teachers introduced her to the concept of humanitarian engineering. Weakley said arriving in Canberra a year later “was like coming home to my people”.
“I had come out of this high school with this whacky plan of like, hopefully humanitarian engineering is a thing. And honestly, the way that I was received back home, it was like I’d coined the phrase myself. Nobody knew that it existed.”
“So when I got into ANU, a place where people were already doing it, I just I was like, ‘Oh, this is it. This is what I’ve been looking for.’”
Engineers Australia is strongly considering recognising Humanitarian Engineering as its own field, which Weakley says will be “a big step for the sector”.
Not only will it help Australia access the untapped talent pool that includes future generations of female engineers, it will also help develop more socio-technical engineers, which she describes as “engineers with a higher calibre of soft-skills and cross-cultural design capacities”.
A woman first, then an engineer
In an hour-long interview conducted via Zoom, Weakley never mentioned a negative experience in an educational or engineering setting.
The only story she shared with any amount of frustration or sadness was an encounter with a woman in a boutique.
Weakley was shopping for a dress for the Engineers Ball. She hit it off with a friendly shop assistant, who, after chatting about style and fabric and fit, asked what Weakley was studying.
At the sound of the word “engineering” the shop assistant’s mouth fell open.
“Oh my goodness! I’m so in awe of you! I could never do that!”
Weakley recalls thinking to herself: “I’m just trying to buy a dress. I’m having a feminine moment here. And now there’s this gap between us.”
A burgeoning female bonding experience had suddenly been replaced by a reminder that choices that defy gender expectations often come with a cost. (She also shared with a sort of amused resignation that men her age are typically thrown off balance, suprised, and/or intimidated.)
But this is not the only reason the encounter stays with her.
“Underneath that lies this idea that to be a woman who makes it in engineering, you have to be different from other women,” Weakley said.
Her fear is that this will scare female students away from engineering “before they even try”.
A man buying a sport coat would not be gazed upon with awe at the mention of his course of study. And that same man, when he was a teenager thinking about a career in STEM, would not have faced societal barriers, unfairly low expectations, or unfairly high bars.
This is something Weakley understands intuitively having trekked around Australia offering EWB workshops to encourage and recruit more girls and young women into engineering.
The barriers are all imaginary. Push on them and they crumble. Her own story proves the point.
Although she earned high marks in high school, Weakley did not study core subjects like physics or chemistry. She had excelled in robot building competitions, but her natural aptitude was more in the arts and humanities sphere.
“I find the material very challenging,” she said of her engineering degree. “But once you get past that, it’s incredibly empowering to be able to bring a technical skill set to the table.”
Weakley is grateful to the Natasha Linard Endowment for providing her a platform to fight the perception that only women who have “alien levels of intelligence, drive or ambition” can succeed in engineering.
“Unless you’re sharing those stories, the culture around it is the main message.”
The Humanitarian Engineering minor at ANU
About the award
Each year, this scholarship is offered by the ANU College of Engineering, Computing and Cybernetics in memory of Dr Natasha Linard; a member of the first undergraduate engineering intake at the ANU.
Dr Natasha Linard was an outstanding and inspiring role model for women in engineering and technology. She was one of the first ANU female students to graduate with a Bachelor of Engineering and, subsequently, with a PhD in Engineering. The scholarship will continue her dedication to mentoring female students and early professionals.
The scholarship is offered to students who have demonstrated a commitment to socio-technical issues through mentoring female students in their early years at the College, by encouraging young women in their final years at school to consider an engineering degree, or through a focus on developing or applying appropriate technologies for developing economies.
Recipients of the Natasha Linard Scholarship for Women in Engineering & Technology carry her name with pride and, like her, will no doubt become prominent members of the engineering profession.