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Monday, July 15, 2024

Engineering a path for women

JAMES Cook University’s first female Head of Engineering Professor Bouchra Senadji never dreamt of becoming an engineer during her childhood in Morocco.

In fact, she wasn’t even sure what engineers did.  

The perceptions of women in engineering are something Professor Senadji is passionate about changing and she hopes this year’s International Women’s Day (March 8) theme, Inspire Inclusion, helps her do just this. 

Commencing with JCU in September 2023, Professor Senadji said it was not uncommon for engineering students to have misconceptions about where their career may take them. 

‘‘I wish I could say I was passionate about engineering when I was young but often, just like me when I was young, we find our students do not fully understand what engineers do,’’ Professor Senadji said. 

‘‘There is a misconception about engineering because of media representations showing hard hats and heavy tools which is not the reality of our work.

“As women in engineering, we can just be ourselves. We don’t want to be confined to a particular type – and we don’t have to. We can be whoever we want to be while being an engineer. 

‘‘For me, it’s the most exciting, creative and beautiful profession ever. Imagine where you would be if engineers weren’t there?

“Would we have buildings, power, phone, medical devices – we wouldn’t.

‘‘It’s also here to serve the community and, to me, all engineering is humanitarian as it serves the needs of our society through identifying gaps to make everyone’s lives better.’’ 

Professor Senadji said she was fortunate her parents invested in her education and made ‘strong suggestions’ about pursuing a career in engineering. 

‘‘They told me it would be great if I could be an engineer,’’ she said. 

For Professor Senadji, the rest was history. 

Completing her studies in electrical engineering at a French grandes écoles was no small feat. 

‘‘I soon found my feet and moved to Australia for four months to do a post-doctoral study in telecommunications with the Queensland University of Technology. 

‘‘Four months became two years working as a lecturer and then I met my partner and had two children and many years later, here I am today in Townsville.’’

Professor Senadji said she worked hard to climb through the ranks at QUT taking on various leadership roles before deciding to make the move north. 

‘‘I saw the role here at JCU and thought, I can do something great at JCU,’’ she said. 

‘‘I’m excited by the strategic possibilities of having a female Head of Engineering because as a university, we want to appeal to women who might be thinking of studying engineering with us.

‘‘I don’t believe that as female leaders and role models we have to be out there preaching every day, but if we can just be and are seen, then obstacles and negative assumptions are removed because people can see that someone else has done it, which means they can too.’’ 

In a male-dominated industry, Professor Senadji said she thanked the many men who had supported her throughout her career because change would not have been possible without male champions who supported cultural change. 

‘‘I hope to be a role model for all students and am dedicated to being here for everyone as the Head of Engineering,’’ Professor Senadji said. 

‘‘In some ways as leaders and the collective student cohort, we can work together to equip and support women to thrive in a male-dominated industry. 

‘‘I look forward to the day when we don’t need to provide specific support or mentoring for women to be able to succeed in a male-dominated profession, because the culture in the workplace would be such that women can thrive by just being who they are. 

‘‘At the moment, entering a male-dominated industry can feel like a burden but I understand the challenges and am passionate about providing women the support and resources they need to build the foundations for their engineering careers.” 

In 2024, JCU saw a 49 per cent increase in Semester One commencing enrolments for Engineering.

‘‘For the first time ever here at JCU, we’ve broken through the 20 per cent mark for the number of female students commencing. and we’d like to retain every single one of them because traditionally we have seen stronger attrition with female students rather than male. 

‘‘The number of female students studying across all JCU courses and campuses has increased since last year with 100 female engineering students making up about 18 per cent of all enrolments, which is up from 15 per cent in 2023.

‘‘Female students also made up nearly 30 per cent of the 2024 commencing undergraduate cohort at our Bebegu Yumba (Townsville) campus, which is wonderful news as we start the new teaching year in the Engineering and Innovation Precinct building.’’

Professor Senadji said it was an exciting time to work at JCU.  

‘‘There is a real willingness to increase and improve representation of women in engineering here at JCU and I have been given a license to do whatever I need to increase numbers,’’ she said. 

‘‘The team has made great progress in fostering and empowering women in Engineering through the Active Women in Engineering (AWESOME) society which is led by two female academics in Townsville and Cairns.

‘‘I’m looking forward to building on this momentum to grow this society so that we can really ensure women in engineering can shine and that the future engineers of our community, both women and men, can go on to create real change.’’

Keep up with the latest news in Cairns and the Far North, and check out some of our top stories this week: Support for community organisations and events, Cairns and Far North police officer charged with sexual offences.

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