It isn’t every day you encounter an engineer with such an illustrious career as Engineers Australia Honorary Fellow and Chartered Professional engineer Professor Elizabeth Taylor HonFIEAust CPEng.
Now, as the 2021 recipient of Engineers Australia’s Peter Nicol Russell Achievement Memorial Medal, Taylor has been recognised for her many professional accomplishments. She shares some of her career highlights with create.
A varied career
It’s challenging to describe Taylor’s achievements without resorting to basic recitation.
In addition to serving as Deputy Chair of the Governing Group of the International Engineering Alliance, she is the Foundation Convenor of Engineers Australia’s National Women in Engineering Committee and Chair of the Cambodian Children’s Trust.
While Pro-Vice Chancellor and Executive Dean at Central Queensland University, she engaged in pro bono work for Registered Engineers for Disaster Relief, or RedR, an international humanitarian response agency that selects, trains and deploys technical specialists.
The trajectory of Taylor’s eventual career was at odds with her plans earlier in life.
“I was one of those people at school who had no idea what I wanted to do,” she said. “I ended up being one of 250 people doing civil engineering, which I knew absolutely nothing about — and for most of the time I was the only girl.”
After a decade as an engineer for the Maritime Service Board, Taylor made a career shift to academia.
“At that point I was in a career that did not support women very well when they started to have children,” she said.
“You could say I had to respond to both life imperatives and career imperatives. It was certainly not my planned career path; it was the outcome of my situation at the time.”
Taylor’s diverse and eclectic career has led her to excel as a leader, notably in the field of engineering education.
“As an academic, I was very strongly involved in curriculum reform to bring out the human element of engineering,” she said. “When I started out, engineering was very much about being above ‘petty politics’ and the way society made decisions — we were independent of having opinions.
“For me, it was important to bring into the curriculum an understanding that this was not the case. We are all human beings, and therefore all have our own opinions and perspectives that impact how we make decisions.”
As Chair of the Washington Accord, an international accreditation agreement across 21 countries for institutions that offer undergraduate engineering degrees, Taylor has called into question conventional assumptions made in the industry.
“The act of mutually recognising engineering around the world challenges cultural expectations, ensuring we don’t take the standard Western view of ‘We’re good, and everyone else is bad’.
“It’s about understanding the complexity of history, relationships and the lived experience of so many people. The rule of law, as we talk about it, is really the rule of privilege.”
Recent conflicts across the globe have, in Taylor’s eyes, further challenged considerations around mutual recognition within engineering.
“How do you not destroy the institution at the same time as making statements about your expectations about terror?” she asked. “How do you negotiate that without destroying civil society?”
A team effort
Receiving the Peter Nicol Russell Achievement Memorial Medal has, for Taylor, clarified the value of the colleagues with whom she has worked alongside during her career.
“It’s a great honour to be recognised by peers,” she said. “I have worked with some wonderful engineers. This award is a recognition of them as much as it is of what I’ve been able to achieve — because without them, I could not have been so honoured.”
All in all, Taylor sees her role in the profession as an attempt to bring the positives to the fore and call out the negatives, as well as to operate as a part of the larger whole.
“I believe that engineering has the capacity to be both the worst and the best thing that happened to humanity,” she said.
“If education is about expanding people’s understanding of themselves — their capacity to grow and whatever attributes are required to achieve that — that requires more than one sort of educator.
“I know that I was probably helpful for some students and wouldn’t have been the right educator for others, but I don’t think any of them would ever say I wasn’t passionate about what I was trying to achieve.”