Building on success

A career in engineering provides an array of opportunities for those who think outside the square – from design and innovation, corporate design philosophy and green construction sites, to working with developing communities. Women in engineering are still a minority, but the tide is turning. We talk to three alumni whose passion for the industry is palpable.

As career development, work conditions and flexibility improve for women engineers, so should their retention and progression in industry and the profession.

However, while the demand for engineering talent is increasing, there is still some way to go. “It has been the case that women left the engineering profession within 10 years, citing poor workplace conditions, culture and a lack of career opportunities as their reasons,” says Bronwyn Holland, Director of the Women in Engineering & IT Program at UTS.

“Recently we have seen a number of women appointed to key national leadership roles in science, engineering and research, such as Chief Scientist for Australia and for New South Wales, Director of the CSIRO, and of the Australian Research Council. This is a great breakthrough, but the profile of their fields means there is a lack of depth in seniority behind them.”

Australia ranks equal-first in terms of investment and years spent in formal education by women, but just 19th in terms of economic participation and opportunity, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report in 2009.

Holland attributes Australia’s poor ranking to a number of factors, including a lack of national paid parental leave up until now and persistence of inflexible working conditions and long-hours culture, particularly in non-traditional fields for women. This is capped by a striking gender pay gap that now stands at 18 per cent, she says.

Through outreach, mentoring and partnering strategies, the Women in Engineering & IT Program works to turn around the lower rate of female participation in engineering and IT. This year, 3.4 per cent more women enrolled in undergraduate engineering at UTS.

“This is certainly something to celebrate,” says Holland. “It seems that many students are connecting with engineering as a platform for a future in technology, design, sustainability and social justice.”

With growing national investment in infrastructure, and new strategies for carbon reduction, engineers are in demand to plan and deliver more efficient and innovative systems including energy, water, transport and communications. Holland says now is a good time to be qualifying in engineering.

“We’re seeing a focus on tackling barriers to women’s participation at many different levels. In the 2008 Engineers for the Future report by the Australian Learning and Teaching Council, four out of the six recommendations relate to diversifying the field and recruiting more women.”

Scholarships are known to attract female enrolments. This year, the first full Women in Engineering Equity Scholarship (fees and living allowance for five years) was awarded.

“This kind of support can make a big difference for someone thinking about a long and demanding course of study,” says Holland.

“Returning to university is also a career option. Engineers who return to the academic environment after working and achieving in their field, can bring opportunities for collaboration and new directions in research.”

At UTS, this would mean being part of the move to a new Five Star, Green Star-rated address for the Faculty of Engineering and IT on Broadway.

Alicia MaynardAlicia Maynard

Employer: Mirvac
Role: Sustainability Manager

Combine a love of maths, drawing, design and creative thinking, and you get an engineer passionate about efficient design.

As she has progressed from civil to structural design and then sustainable engineering management, Alicia Maynard has always had one goal in mind: improving the design and functionality of buildings. Thinking outside the square is crucial as she works across every design aspect to make the process – design and construction – sustainable.

Sustainability, in Maynard’s world, is about efficient design – being “smart”. Think: orientation, and how surrounding buildings cast their shadow; ventilation, and how the local environment affects it; lighting and energy; heating and cooling.

“There’s so much you can do purely on good site selection that can influence the foundation for a sustainable design,” says Maynard (B. Engineering, Dip Engineering Prac, 2003). “But it’s not often you can choose the optimum site – our challenge is to get a design that suits the inherent conditions of the site.”

HomeHQ shopping centre, in Sydney’s Artarmon, was one such challenge. The heritage-listed building is the first retail space in Australia to achieve a Green Star rating with the Retail Centre v1 rating 1 tool.

“It was technically challenging working with an existing building for which we had to retain certain elements,” says Maynard, who not only managed the sustainability component of the refurbishment and extension for client Charter Hall and previous employer St Hillers, but was also able to incorporate a massive rainwater tank used to flush toilets.

This is a new era: “Previously we’ve worked to make office buildings and homes sustainable, but this shopping centre is now sustainable,” she says. “It’s really refreshing to see that finance is no longer the primary driver for being a good business.”

Maynard, Sustainability Manager at Mirvac, is all about “creating a better future in the built environment”, and says she is looking forward to seeing how the market embraces “smart, efficient design” in the coming years.

She also plans to start a family down the track, but doesn’t see it impacting her career. “I can certainly see myself continuing to work in this profession. Many companies are embracing flexible working practices, giving the best solution for the business and employee.”

Also never an issue for Maynard: gender inequality. “We’re all there to do the same thing,” she says. Although in the minority as an engineering student, Maynard, who received two scholarships and multiple awards at UTS, says girls considering engineering shouldn’t be “limited by their perception”. She has since received several industry awards and has promoted engineering to girls at rural high schools.

“It is a highly rewarding career – you are really doing a community service by being able to think outside the square,” she says. “Engineering is such a diverse profession – you don’t have to get your hands dirty onsite, but you can if you want to. If you are good at maths and science-based subjects, or like working outside or with people, engineering is a profession that allows you to do anything you want in any aspect of design or consulting.

“It can open so many doors internationally, and there are also many opportunities for engineers in Australia.”

Natasha ConnollyNatasha Connolly

Employer: Arup
Role: Senior Sustainability Consultant

She’s worked on the Dublin Port Tunnel and wind farms in Scotland, not to mention an eco-village in California and an eco-hotel in Hawaii, but never has Natasha Connolly been so busy.

For Natasha Connolly, a career in engineering has meant travelling the world and climbing the career ladder. Ten years in the industry, and she has worked in Sydney, Scotland, Ireland and the United States.

“I’ve had the opportunity to bring and develop different skills to different parts of the world. I’ve expanded my skills base and enjoyed great lifestyle opportunities,” says Connolly who was inspired to study engineering at UTS by an engineering graduate at a career presentation.

For now though, Connolly, 34, is tied up with projects closer to home. The Senior Sustainability Consultant at Arup is on maternity leave, looking after her new son Fraser.

“It’s grounding to go from working on huge international projects to playing with Play-Doh and cutting out crafts.”

This isn’t the first time she has taken maternity leave. After the birth of her first child, Charley Anne, in Seattle in 2007, she took four months off. This time, she is planning about nine months.

“It’s a change of mindset. I’ve been very fortunate at Arup; they are very supportive with flexible working arrangements and they provide me with what I need to get the work done and also have time off. A day off is a day off.”

Connolly (B. Engineering, Dip Engineering Prac, 2000), who received a BP-sponsored scholarship at UTS, did her final work experience placement with Arup in Dublin. Since then, she has steadily moved up the ranks of the multi-national engineering consulting firm.

The best part of engineering, she says, is the diversity and the fact it’s “always evolving and isn’t a stagnant career”.

One of her more interesting projects was the planning and design of an eco-village in Napa Valley, expanding a university and providing services for the community and the college.

Connolly led the project team in setting the vision and sustainability strategies, and working with the client as well as architects, water engineers, other specialists and the community.

“We were integrating new developments within an existing neighbourhood – improving services, providing affordable accommodation, all while optimising the environmental and economic outcomes.

“It was challenging. When you’re starting with a blank piece of paper it’s easier to come up with great ideas. When you’re working within an existing community, there are a lot of constraints such as existing infrastructure,” she says.

That wasn’t the case in Hawaii, where she helped establish a Leadership in Energy and Environment Design (LEED) certified eco-hotel on Maui.

“I was working with Starwood Hotels, with certain standards and corporate image to abide by. It was really exciting to be able to change their philosophy and get further up the ladder and change how they approach design.”

And being the only woman on a construction site? “As the only female onsite, everyone remembers your name,” Connolly laughs.

Emily MudgeEmily Mudge

Employer: Bovis Lend Lease
Role: Design Manager

Emily Mudge played a major role in one of the world’s most successful sustainable development projects; now she is focused on using innovation to help developing communities become sustainable.

In her short career, Emily Mudge has worked on all sorts of projects, from an Indian business unit, to an ACT prison, to metropolitan hospitals. She is currently working on a Royal Children’s Hospital project in Melbourne.

But it is using innovation to develop sustainable communities about which she is most passionate. Mudge, 30, was ‘donated’ by employer Bovis Lend Lease to Sri Lanka for a year, where she worked on one of the world’s most successful sustainable development projects – the reconstruction of 6000 houses in 90 communities destroyed by the 2004 tsunami.

“It’s very easy to build 100 houses in a community and do it in three months. The houses would all look the same, sometimes the same colour, and face the same direction. You would leave and actually think you’ve left a community of 100 houses. The reality is this community had a culture and certain ideas about where they live and which way the windows and doors face.

“Our program went for 14 months to deliver between 40 and 100 houses in a community. We re-established their identity; community members drove the design of the houses, and were trained in the reconstruction process. We supported them technically and to maintain quality and budget.”

With the knowledge gained in Sri Lanka, Mudge went on to start work with an Indigenous community in Queensland, to improve its community centre. She is now focused on applying her knowledge to other Indigenous community projects, and is combining this with her own research on how innovation in Australia can be improved.

“For me, sustainable community building is about three things: partnerships, community empowerment or involvement, and innovation.”

Innovation, she says, is something lacking in Australia. “We are actually considered quite a low innovator. The principle of how we can do things better is something that interests me, and often feeds into the projects I work on.”

Japan, on the other hand, is at the top of the innovation scale, having successfully innovated technology and design to the benefit of the nation and the economy.

Japan is another of Mudge’s passions. She studied the language, along with civil engineering at UTS (B. Engineering, BA in International Studies, Dip Engineering Prac, 2005), and has been on exchange there twice.

“UTS stood out because of the support and the structure of the course, and the exchange component meant I could combine engineering with my Japanese. The degree was very progressive and flexible.”

Japan has a place in her career sights, too. But until her next overseas posting, the former world karate champion – and multiple award and grant recipient – will be kept busy between her research, onsite peer sustainability group and “working out how we can keep doing things better”.

“The ‘best’ of something is only relative to a point in time. There is always a way to make improvement – we just have to find the means. The idea of this is really exciting to me.

“I want to continually challenge myself as a person and employee, as well as the company and our sub-contractors – how we can work better, what’s new and what we can gain from tapping into it.

“What continues to motivate me is the potential in the industry – what lies ahead in materials technology, sustainable design of services, water, waste and neutral carbon opportunities. We’re at a point where we can apply those constraints to design and deliver buildings that have never been seen before.”