Margaret Gayen never wanted to be an engineer but despite this fact last year was named South Australia Young Professional Engineer of the Year. Now she’s taking steps to help retain women in engineering.
Both of her parents are chemical engineers, and she initially railed against the idea of an engineering career. She was adamant about carving out her own path.
“My parents recommended engineering to me – they could see I enjoyed maths and science, but I pushed back because I wanted to rebel in some way,” says Margaret.
“Then I discovered I’m not very rebellious!” she laughs.
Realising that there might be some wisdom in her parents’ advice, Margaret pursued a Bachelor of Engineering (Mechanical and Sports) at the University of Adelaide.
She first went on to work at Ellex, a medical equipment company, designing and testing lasers for treating eye diseases before moving to GPA Engineering where she now works predominantly on renewable hydrogen projects as a Mechanical/Project engineer.
“The projects I’ve worked on over the last couple of years have mostly focused on the feasibility of putting hydrogen into natural gas pipelines, though I’m currently designing hydrogen production facilities. The hydrogen will be used to refuel trucks or buses, instead of [using] petrol or diesel,” says Margaret.
“I’ve been really inspired by the opportunity to contribute to the fight against climate change.”
An engineer in training
Studying anatomy, physiology and biomechanics at university was a natural fit for Margaret, who was always passionate about sport and relished the opportunity to expand her knowledge of human anatomy.
“I was interested in designing sports equipment, prosthetics and sports-related gear. Studying physiology, anatomy and biomechanics was a great mix with my engineering subjects.”
Diving into these subject areas dovetailed well with Margaret’s athletic career as a long jumper.
“Understanding how the human body moves and responds to an injury was really useful,” says Margaret, who competed in the 2014 Commonwealth Games and retired from athletics one year ago.
“When we looked into biomechanical analysis at the Australian Institute of Sport or at similar training camps, I could understand what they were testing and why.”
“My athletics coach was often talking about angles and forces on the ground. A lot of that is engineering your biomechanics, so having that understanding through my university study was definitely a bonus.”
For Margaret, athletics provided a welcome reprieve to her school and university studies.
“It wasn’t just beneficial physically, it was also a mental refresh. I’ve always wanted to use my brain and learn, and I liked engineering as a way to explore the technical details and solve problems. At the same time, athletics taught me a lot about individual motivation, resilience and confidence.”
After her success at the Commonwealth Games, Margaret was asked to share her experiences and lessons as a motivational speaker.
Little did she know the public speaking skills she developed during this time would stand her in good stead as an engineer.
Taking a stand against gender bias
About a year ago, Margaret and one of her female engineering colleagues, Carina Nixon, began to openly discuss their experiences as women working in a male-dominated industry.
“We wanted to raise awareness about what bias, discrimination and harassment can look like. Microaggressions often go unseen in the industry and these incidents, even if they aren’t major on their own, really add up,” says Margaret.
“Getting an email addressed to a ‘Mr’, someone making a sexist joke or not being able to get a work shirt made for a woman won’t on their own make me go home and cry, but if all of these things happen in a day or two, it will have an impact.”
As a result of their experiences, Margaret and her colleague developed a report which covers hundreds of stories of gender bias, discrimination, sexual harassment and assault from men and women in the engineering industry.
They then shared their findings and talked about their own experiences at an industry conference hosted by the Australian Pipelines and Gas Association.
“Some of the men who heard us talk said they weren’t aware that these were any women’s experiences. A lot of the women came forward and told us their stories, because they had resonated so much with what we shared. Some of them said they hadn’t realised they were allowed to complain about these sorts of incidents, that they thought they just had to deal with it. That was really powerful, although I wish it wasn’t the case.”
Since presenting at the conference, the CEO of the Australian Pipeline and Gas Association has had many conversations with industry members telling him how affected they were by our talk, says Margaret.
“Many of them have been inspired to organise initiatives in their own companies or for other industry groups. That’s just one example of the many ripples that have spread from us deciding to speak up.”
Margaret hopes that the industry moves towards a point where discussions about diversity, equality and inclusion are a thing of the past.
“I want everybody to be welcome, no matter who they are or where they come from, so that we don’t need to do targeted initiatives for minority groups,” says Margaret.
“I’m trying to help women, and also men, by making sure that we have a positive culture for everyone to stay in the industry.”
Engineers Australia is hosting events across Australia this week to mark International Women in Engineering Day. Visit EA’s Events Portal to find an event near you.