Perhaps it’s a measure of how far we have come, that for the UK-born Associate Research Fellow at SMART, working as a woman in the Faculty of Engineering and Information Sciences is really no big deal.
The landscape has changed since 1997, when she first became an engineer.
In those days, engineering was seen as a traditionally male occupation, associated with the grease and oil of mechanical engineering, or the high physical labour involved in male-dominated trades engineering.
In her early experiences as an engineer she says “it was not uncommon to see inappropriate images of women posted on walls, and it was sometimes difficult to feel a valued part of the team if you weren’t “one of the lads”.”
Kennedy joined UOW in her current role a year ago. From her recent experience working at UOW, gender has been “mostly a non-issue”, this is however not reflected in industry more widely.
According to Engineers Australia, the proportion of women in the field is still only 12 per cent – compared to 35 per cent in Europe.
This, despite the fact that females make up 70 per cent of all STEM graduates.
Kennedy saw this first-hand when she graduated from her all-girls school in the UK and found to her surprise that only a handful of her cohort elected to study engineering at university, with some highly talented mathematicians and scientists going on to study non-STEM subjects such as politics, philosophy or law.
“The issue is about getting equity for women who would otherwise have been at least equally capable if it were not for discouraging views from society, peers, family and negative experiences” she says.
“Every time that you build some kind of unnecessary division – in this case on gender – you risk creating inequity.”
“In the end, it’s really just about respect for every person as an individual irrespective of any labels.”
She offers four pieces of advice for those wanting to enter the field: “to be professional”, “to work hard and work smart”, “to strive to be your best”, and “to bring value to your team”.
So what value does she bring to the team led by Professor Peter Campbell and specialising in systems engineering?
“I don’t think there is anything separate that I bring to the team, purely because I am a woman. I just want to be classed as an individual,” she says.
But as a professional engineer?
“I work hard, I have the ability to analyse information quickly and I am well organised. Like most engineers I am inquisitive and relish problem-solving.”
It may be no coincidence that the field where Kennedy works is one of the more recent branches of engineering.
Systems Engineering began around the 1940s but really took off in the post-space era becoming more mainstream from the 1980s and 1990s.
A system can be defined as “a number of different components that interact and are working towards a common goal”.
“As technology has advanced and systems have become more complex, systems engineers have become essential in managing and integrating the various facets of engineering in order to develop systems that are on-time, within cost, have the required functionality and meet the customer’s acceptance,” she says.
So her work in SMART is in Model-Based Systems Engineering for the Australian Rail industry. Her team develops models of the technical and organisational aspects of systems.
The applications are varied: from assessing organisational change for digital transformation; to exploring the impact of new technology introduction on human factors; to measuring the reliability and integrity of railway system assets.
The ultimate aim is to support the rail industry by providing new and innovative insights into what organisational changes will be required to support modern train technologies that will increase the capacity of the rail networks, improve the reliability of the system, and provide a better passenger experience.
Kennedy is hopeful for the future of women in engineering.
“We need to combat the negative stereotypes around women in engineering, provide exposure to opportunities, and we have to encourage all capable students, particularly girls, who are interested to widen their horizons and ‘have a go!’,” she says.
“And we have a need to provide positive role models.”
The Fourth Industrial Revolution – marked by cyber-technical systems such as artificial intelligence and machine learning – is developing technology at a rapid pace which will be pervasive in society.
Kennedy predicts that the jobs of the future will require people in STEM to understand and develop these new systems.
“As a society we need to be increasing our STEM capabilities and the size of our STEM workforce,” she says.
There are already shortages of engineers in many industries, so why limit the future to just half of the potential pool of capable engineers?”