Gender diversity in key management positions is low across Australia and lower still in engineering firms. Cardno, now Stantec, is an exception to this trend. Here, three of their female leaders talk about the challenges and advantages of diversity.
The dynamic between Christine Miller, Linh Truong and Karen Duck is powerful and inspirational. There is a sense that their bond is stronger than a traditional colleague relationship. They laugh often, effortlessly expand upon each other’s thoughts, compliment one another, and celebrate whenever a team member succeeds.
“We’re promoters of each other and recognise the skills and benefits each of us brings,” says Miller, Business Leader, South Coast, at Cardno now Stantec. “It’s not just the female cohort in our leadership group, it’s the males as well. There’s a real sense of collaboration and not competition.”
According to Engineers Australia, while the numbers are improving, only 13.6 per cent of the workforce that holds engineering qualifications is female. Meanwhile, the federal Office of Australia’s Chief Scientist report on STEM Qualifications found that female representation drops from 13.6 per cent to 11 per cent at the management level and is lower still at the executive level (six per cent).
Cardno, now Stantec, bucks this trend. Fifty per cent of its Australian leadership group is female, and many of its key executive positions are also held by women.
How has it accomplished this? The barriers in the way of more women holding leadership positions are predominantly structural and cultural, but perhaps another challenge, one we don’t often talk about, is a lack of imagination on the part of firms.
“There can be a mindset that there is only one path to a leadership career,” says Miller. “Often female candidates present differently compared with male applicants – their career pathways aren’t always the same, and personalities can come through in different ways. This can create an unconscious bias against hiring them. And we have to find ways to challenge that bias.”
Miller describes her career as “zigzagging”, so she fits the mould of an atypical leadership hire.
Miller and her colleagues give a lot of credit to Shane Higgins, General Manager, NSW/ACT/NZ, for their current dynamic. They say he has helped their company achieve success by being open-minded about leaders and creating an environment of trust, one where people are viewed based on actions and results, not superficial criteria.
Linh Truong, Business Leader, Transport, believes that to effectively run an engineering organisation, particularly a large one, you need leaders with different talents.
“You absolutely need technical people, but you also need candidates who enjoy people management and the commercial side of business. The aim should be to create a holistic organisational structure.”
With a background in business operations, Karen Duck, Business Leader, ACT, personifies the importance of this point.
“I’m a great example of bringing complimentary diversity of thought and expertise to a multidisciplinary engineering firm. Being involved in every role of the operation has positioned me exceptionally well to support my technical and non-technical team members in finding solutions when issues are identified.”
Evolving challenges and trends
The three women have an experienced and executive vantage point to appreciate the challenges and trends of the engineering industry, and each have different areas that are currently capturing their interest.
Truong is focused on empowering the most vulnerable members of society to travel safely and freely. She thinks autonomous and connected autonomous vehicles won’t just benefit the shared economy and the needs of the community, they are going to be essential in addressing mobility and accessibility issues.
Duck is seeing an increasing demand for the development of sustainable infrastructure that aligns with the social needs of the community.
“The challenge the industry is facing is delivering infrastructure with a whole-of-life focus, with sustainability considerations from day one, instead of trying to shoehorn sustainability at the delivery stage via material reuse. As an industry, we have the opportunity to lead from the front, educate ourselves, and partner with our clients and our communities. ”
Miller is focused on how engineering organisations can find more effective ways to capture, house and use data.
“We’re engineers, we love data, but we tend to capture and process data multiple times without repurposing it,” she says. “The challenge is, how do we make data accessible and usable, and house it in a way so it can be used to formulate strategies? The engineering profession is all about solving problems, so we should be on top of this.”
Advice for engineers and would-be engineers
With International Women’s Day coming up (8 March), all three leaders made a point of saying that female representation can’t just be about ticking a box – diversity for diversity’s sake. The benefits of diversity come through when you truly appreciate diversity of thought and voice, both in the industry and at a leadership level.
The three women were asked what advice they would give to their younger selves. Unsurprisingly, their answers don’t only apply to women. Duck stresses the importance of support.
“Find a sponsor that supports your success. Find a support network, and don’t try and solve all your problems on your own,” she says. “It can be the same person or different people throughout your career, but you need people that will advocate for you without an agenda.”
Miller’s advice speaks to her unconventional career path and the importance she places on authenticity.
“Don’t change who you are to meet other people’s expectations,” she says. “Be who you are, and the opportunities will come to you.”
Truong suggests seeking opportunities to grow.
“Take time to reflect and consider both good and bad moments as learning opportunities. In the end, engineering is about joining the dots, being creative, and getting in there and doing it.”
Cardno, now Stantec, offers open ‘Shared Care’ parental leave which allows flexibility for all new parents. Career opportunities at Cardno, now Stantec, can be found on their website career page.