Just as women used to sit in groups weaving together, more than 100 women (and men) at UWA sat together in the Tropical Grove, listening to Carolyn Oldham weave together the threads of her vision for a resilient and excellent university.
Winthrop Professor Oldham was the guest speaker on International Women's Day and she brought together the strands of efficiency, engaging with young people and offering them a vision to create the resilience needed for an inspiring future.
The theme for the morning, Connecting Girls and Inspiring Futures, is something Professor Oldham said she had spent half her life pondering. "I see the challenge to engage girls and present the vision of an inspiring future in engineering as a critical need for my profession's future viability," she said.
Although her discipline, environmental engineering, enjoys a staff and student balance of almost 50 per cent women, other areas of engineering fail miserably on the gender scale.
But it is not just girls, but boys, who, more than anything, "want to have voices in their communities," she said. "With this desire to be heard, they bring a heap of energy, ideas and passion ... (but) we are often disinclined to listen to them. We often don't feel we have the time to really listen."
She said the girls and boys who are our future are at home with the new world where digital technology has eroded traditional power bases and we need to engage meaningfully with them to find a new way of operating.
Professor Oldham talked about community resilience: "The ability of communities to cope with rapid change, to cope with new demands, to ensure the community is sustainable and high-performing even under extreme conditions, the ability to transform and evolve."
She spoke of the "critical difference between long-term resilience achieved through diversity of thinking and doing, and the efficiency of the current system. "
Efficiency often uses a short-term framework ... I suggest our biggest challenge is to know when to follow the efficiency pathway and when to follow the innovation, resilience and sustainability pathway. I propose that by engaging young women and men in our decision-making, we make that balancing act explicit. "
I believe the key to engaging girls (and boys) is dependent on our ability to offer them a vision not just of the future, but a vision for the present. I believe that the vision girls and boys are looking for is a future with genuine dialogue. Engaging with girls, particularly in areas like engineering, and presenting an inspiring future for them, is a commitment and a responsibility that has to be shared by all of us.
"If we do not encourage an environment where people's voices are heard, whether they are girls or boys, we don't even get to the starting line in attracting our best chance of a resilient and excellent university for the future."
Published in UWA News, 19 March 2012