Seismic shift: Three engineering institutions, three female presidents

"We're there to hold the organisation accountable," says Rosalind Archer, president of...
"We're there to hold the organisation accountable," says Rosalind Archer, president of Engineering New Zealand. Photo: Supplied
They were the old boys' clubs of New Zealand engineering. Women run them now.

"I wish it weren't newsworthy," Rosalind Archer says in jest about her March appointment as president of Engineering New Zealand, the 22,000-member behemoth that registers the country's chartered professional engineers and holds them to account.

One month before Archer, Michelle Grant became the first woman president of the Structural Engineering Society. Last April, Helen Ferner made similar waves at the Society for Earthquake Engineering.

It's a first that all three institutions have women presidents at the same time, a historic victory for gender diversity in engineering.

Is it? Women make up 27 per cent of the engineering workforce, but only 20 per cent of CEOs and 17 per cent of senior managers in the sector, according to the Association for Women in the Sciences.

The numbers are poorer where Archer, Grant and Ferner sit, reflecting the profession's long-running reputation as a boys' club. 17 per cent of Engineering New Zealand's members are women, 11 per cent at the two societies.

"It's fantastic, these numbers," says Ferner, who had one other woman in her class at engineering school. "Because that's a big change from when I started in the 70s and 80s."

Society for Earthquake Engineering president Helen Ferner (right) presenting a women's leader...
Society for Earthquake Engineering president Helen Ferner (right) presenting a women's leader award to Charlotte Tome at the society's 2021 conference in Christchurch. Photo: Supplied
The earthquake engineer has 35 years of experience, including post-quake reconstruction in San Francisco and Christchurch. She now heads a society that is home to New Zealand's seismic rating system for buildings, and the de facto expert on all things earthquake.

"Now we have opportunities, role models, a real advance. That wasn't so a while ago," she said.

"I think it's just a sign of the leaky pipeline in the profession," says Archer, who is also deputy dean of engineering at the University of Auckland. All three women's presidencies are voluntary, unpaid appointments.

"I count myself as one of the lucky ones. I wasn't particularly held back. I don't have children so I haven't had to navigate the challenges of work and family."

"When I look at dual-career couples and their challenges of navigating childcare during school holidays … the numbers just don't add up," she told the Herald.

Structural Engineering Society president Michelle Grant. Photo: Supplied
Structural Engineering Society president Michelle Grant. Photo: Supplied
The juggle is real for Michelle Grant. She is mother to two school-aged boys, founding director of engineering firm LGE Consulting in Masterton, Wairarapa, and since February, president of the Structural Engineering Society.

She wants to fill the aspiration gap for women in a field that's grappling with an invisibility syndrome. "When you think of a structural engineer, what's the image that comes to mind?" she asked over a long-distance phone call from Australia where she was visiting family.

"If you don't see it, you can't want to be it."

Structural engineering is the design and construction of the structural elements of buildings, the stuff that ensures their safety and stability.

"When we're finished, a lot of the structural work is hidden behind the architectural finish so you don't see the work we do."

It's load-bearing work. "If a structural engineer makes a mistake, and a structure fails, you can hurt a lot of people. It's that responsibility on your shoulders," Grant said.

At Engineering New Zealand, full-time academic Archer is in charge of an authority that also serves as a watchdog, upholding technical standards and professional ethics.

"We have an outstanding legal team in-house, we work with external legal advice, and have all sorts of disciplinary channels we unfortunately have to use at times."

One of her priorities is growing the organisation's Māori and Pasifika membership. "If we're going to engineer solutions for New Zealand we need a profession that looks more like New Zealand."

Having women at the top of engineering institutions means women's interests and views are represented in decision-making that affects the whole profession. But it doesn't change the fact that women remain the obvious minority.

Diversity is a long game, Ferner says, undaunted.

Asked if she's still heading a boys' club, Archer laughed.

"It's not true. It's an organisation that's open to all, that really wants a membership that looks like New Zealand, and is turning a lens on itself to ask how it can be part of that solution."

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