Followers of social media may recognise the World War II poster girl, often referred to as “Rosie the Riveter”, from countless girl power memes. She became an iconic image of working women. Fast-forward 70-odd years and the “we can do it” slogan still appeals to women working in male-dominated industries today.
In New Zealand, one such industry is engineering – women make up only about 13% of people employed as engineers1. University of Waikato masters student Erin Sims is amongst that 13 percent. Erin graduated with a Bachelor of Engineering with Honours in 2016 and nailed her dream job at Robotics Plus, a company that develops robotic technologies for primary industries. Following a collaboration to develop a robotic apple harvester for her fourth-year Honours project, Erin was offered a full-time role as a Research and Development Engineer with the Tauranga based company.
I enjoy working in the primary industry sector because you’re solving real world problems.
Citing engineering as having “unlimited career options”, Erin wants to see more women study it. With only 5 females out of 44 in her Mechanical Engineering graduating class Erin admits that she was in the minority. “Engineering wasn’t on my radar as a career option when I was young,” says Erin. “I didn’t consider robotics either, until just prior to leaving university.”
Robotics fabrication specialist Lauren Vasey visited New Zealand earlier this year to talk about the future of architecture and women in robotics, as part of the Paradigm-Shift lecture series. Vasey remarked that women are still under represented in robotics, “There’s a definite glass ceiling, it’s more prevalent in some areas than others,” she said2.
Despite having all female project managers at Robotics Plus, Erin is the only permanent female engineer. The imbalance isn’t by design, there are simply not enough women applying for the engineering roles that are advertised. Luckily for Erin, she says she never encountered gender prejudice while studying or in the workplace. She believes having male friends enrolled in the same programme as her may have made a difference at university, and is fortunate to be working in a young team at Robotics Plus.
“Maybe it’s a generational thing but gender prejudice isn’t an issue,” she says. “We all work in a very collaborative way.”
Robotics would have to be right up there as the rock star of the engineering world right now and Erin, who majored in mechanical, is thrilled to be amongst the action. With associated disciplines like electronics, computer science, artificial intelligence, mechatronics, nanotechnology and bioengineering, there’s scope to broaden her skillset exponentially. For Erin the highlight of working in robotics is being involved on a project from beginning to end. She also enjoys the variety of work she’s had a hand in so far, like 3D modelling, ordering parts, assembly, design, coding and learning new software applications.
Robotics Plus apple packers are already operating in pack houses in New Zealand and the USA and other technologies are at various stages of development or commercialisation, including several “confidential projects”. Erin’s masters research of one year is one of those projects. She may have handed in her thesis, but Erin is still working on the prototype project that remains top secret. All she can say is, when the project comes to fruition it will be of regional and national importance and, eventually, likely to impact the industry on an international scale.
It’s exciting stuff for the former Waihi College student who, while excelling at maths, physics, graphics and art, didn’t contemplate a path in engineering until year 12. Once her interest was piqued, there was no stopping her. Erin won a slew of scholarships throughout her four undergraduate years at the University of Waikato, and completed work placements at Lely Sensortec, Vertex and Gallagher.
For now, Erin is content to stay put in the primary industry sector but has ambitions to one day work with robotics in the medical industry.
“I just want to learn as much as I can and work on projects that have a positive impact on people.”
1 Ministry for Women http://women.govt.nz/news/stem-directory
5 in 5 with Erin Sims
Did you want to be an engineer growing up?
No, I had my heart set on being an architect. I used to sit and draw floor plans of houses. I didn’t pursue architecture because I was put off by the amount of time it took to study compared to the amount of work opportunities out there. It’s a little ironic since I’ve done about the same amount with my engineering undergrad, honours and masters study!
What does a typical work week look like?
I’m up to the commissioning side of my current project so I’m running tests to make sure everything’s working well. If it’s not, I find the faults and fix them which generally involves rewriting software updates, replacing hardware, rewiring – basically, lots of problem solving.
Do you see yourself as a role model to other Kiwi girls keen on engineering?
No I don’t, but It would be pretty cool to inspire other girls and women to get into engineering and robotics. Essentially, you need to be a problem solver - someone who is interested in how things work and who will sit down, nut through problems to find a solution and be hands on. If that sounds like you, go for it. Don’t feel like it’s only an industry for men. If you have a passion for it, just work hard.
Do you think, simply by being female, you add something unique to your role at Robotics Plus?
It’s hard to define, but I do think I bring something different to the table. Maybe you should ask my boss!
What do you most get a kick out of, working in robotics?
You can see how what you’re doing will impact the industry and make things easier for people and improve the jobs people are doing.