AECOM Technical Director Emma Charlton’s work today does not look much like what she was doing in her early career when, as a newly graduated mechanical engineer, she worked in acoustics.
In some ways, Charlton’s role as the Australia–New Zealand Defence Environmental Services Lead differs substantially from what many people imagine engineering work involves.
But that’s one reason why she is so proud to have been awarded the Engineers Australia Excellence Award for Queensland Professional Engineer of the Year.
“I think it’s a nice recognition that engineering can look like a lot of different things, and that you can use an engineering degree in a lot of different ways and still make an impact,” she told create.
That impact involves bringing sustainability and environmental perspectives to a realm in which they might not be traditionally expected to be seen as a priority: the defence industry.
“The understanding of the engineering process and the design process really helps inform how that works, and understanding what they need to know at what time — and what’s critical and what’s manageable and what can be managed down the track — has really been beneficial in my role,” Charlton said.
“To me, [that] means being the go-between between our environmental people — ecologists and archaeologists and anthropologists and environmental scientists — and looking at how we interface with design teams or with defence capability acquisition teams to give them the right advice and understanding of the environmental issues.”
And when it comes to working with the Department of Defence, sustainability can matter in surprising ways.
“There’s an element there of trust that Australian people put in the Department of Defence to manage these natural assets,” Charlton said.
“There’s a huge amount of land that’s owned and operated by the Department of Defence; a lot of it is national park, wetlands [with] threatened species — really important natural assets that they manage on behalf of Australia.”
Procurement is another area that requires a strong sustainability outlook.
“One example of a project we’ve been doing is working for Army headquarters, where they’re looking to procure the next fleet of land combat vehicles, which will replace an existing fleet of armoured fighting vehicles,” Charlton said.
“You’re looking at how the vehicles that they’re procuring differ from the current vehicles? Where are they used, how are they used and what does that mean in terms of potential for different or higher impact than had been there previously?
“What are the existing environmental controls in place to manage those impacts — are they going to be sufficient? Where do they need to do something extra to make sure that, as they bring these new armoured vehicles into service, they don’t have a significant impact on the environment?”
Diversity and inclusion
Charlton has worked in consulting engineering for more than 20 years across various industries and market sectors, and she has maintained a consistent focus on the importance of social responsibility in this work.
Along with the sustainability focus she brings to her defence work, Charlton helps to deliver AECOM’s equity, diversity and inclusion strategy — and the Excellence Awards judges noted her passion for this work.
“Part of our job as an engineer is to not just think about the technical solution, but to think about what that solution means for social and environmental outcomes at the same time, and to understand the role you can play in influencing those,” she said.
“That’s also something I’ve been trying to bring to my role on equity and diversity at AECOM, and helping break down for different types of groups at AECOM what role they can play in that.”
Charlton said she first became involved in diversity and inclusion advocacy after winning Engineers Australia’s Young Professional Engineer of the Year Award in 2011.
“I was asked to do a lot of public speaking … which I think forces you to reflect on your career, and it made me realise that we probably hadn’t made the progress in increasing women’s representation in engineering,” she said.
“There were still a lot of unconscious bias and issues that were holding back women in leadership in engineering professions, and it also made me interested in reading a lot more widely about … other aspects of diversity. It really stoked an interest in me [to] do more about that.”
Making her voice heard
Charlton realised she had achieved a level of seniority as an engineer that her voice could matter, and she would have the opportunity to help make real changes.
“[This] started within AECOM, in putting my hand up to be on our ANZ equity and diversity and inclusion advisory panel, which sets the strategy around what AECOM’s going to do,” Charlton said.
She then took on a role in the leadership team for northern and Western Australia business, driving initiatives and activities to improve diversity inclusion at the company.
That led to other opportunities in the diversity and inclusion space.
“We helped [build] the momentum to create the first pride group at AECOM, which was really exciting,” Charlton said.
“We made huge inroads in the reported feelings of inclusion of LGBTQIA+ people across AECOM, which has been really amazing to see how much change can be made in a relatively short amount of time.”
In addition to these efforts within her own workplace, she is also a member of the board of Australian Spatial Analytics, a data solutions social enterprise that employs young autistic and neurodiverse adults.
“It just felt like a really great fit for me, with my passion for diversity and inclusion, but also feeling like I could bring that experience from 20 years in the engineering industry to an organisation delivering services to a similar part of the industry,” Charlton said.
“It’s been such a pleasure to be involved and to see the impact on the individuals involved who may have struggled to either find employment or keep employment previously, and the joy and sense of belonging they get from finding a place where their differences are a strength, where they really fit in and where they’re able to see themselves build a career.”