The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day was Each for Equal, which made it all the more appropriate that engineers from around Australia came together to share challenges and discuss solutions.
Engineers Australia’s sold-out event series in Perth, Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney saw more than 2200 people gather to discuss how the profession can achieve greater parity — from small practical steps to broader culture change.
Sydney’s lunch event was the last leg of the country-wide tour. Engineers Australia CEO Dr Bronwyn Evans opened the discussion by sharing some of her story as a woman in the profession and the changes she has seen over the course of her career.
Evans said she credits the three ‘Ls’ for helping her find engineering: location, for her early years were spent in industrial and education hubs; luck, at having access to education opportunities and support networks; and a love for logical thinking.
Throughout her career, she has seen the conversation about women in engineering change. First, it was about fixing the women to “make them more like the blokes”, she said. Then it evolved to fixing policy. Now, focus has shifted to the important role of organisational culture and how that needs to change to support more women and men in the profession.
Panellists picked up this thread, and their discussion touched on the day’s theme of challenging stereotypes to change workplace culture.
Master of Ceremonies Tanya Ha, a board member of Diversity Council Australia, put forward results from a survey conducted by Engineers Australia asking event attendees what they feel are the biggest barriers facing women in engineering. It showed the top two responses were male-dominated boards and entrenched social attitudes.
All panelists agreed that it’s time to change attitudes about practices such as parental leave and flexible work to make the profession more equitable for both women and men.
Sarah Hannah CPEng, Head of Asset Systems at energy business AGL, recalled an incident where an employee approached their supervisor to request flexible work arrangements — and came prepared with a long list of reasons to argue their case.
“They felt like they needed to fight for it and justify their reasoning for wanting to work flexibly; it just showed me that we still have a long way to go,” she said.
Brian Clohessy, Head of People and Character at BVN, confirmed this experience is a common one across companies, adding that visibility will be a large part of changing this behaviour. He said BVN tries to promote this by making everyone’s flexible arrangements visible through an all-company app.
Panelist Zrinka Lovrencic, Managing Director of Great Place to Work Australia, said other changing societal norms will ripple through workplaces. For example, the legalisation of same-sex marriage raises questions about parental leave and primary carers.
She added that Australia lags international counterparts in Europe and elsewhere when it comes to parental leave for both men and women, particularly leave for the ‘non-primary’ carer.
“We need to put in place more practices that are gender neutral because we live in a changing society,” she said.
Getting on the mat
International Women’s Day keynote speaker Nadine Champion also took to the stage to share her experiences with challenging stereotypes.
The martial arts master said she works in an arena with similarities to engineering — both are very male-dominated, with about the same percentage of female participation in Australia.
Champion told attendees about how she had to fight her way onto the mat at a young age.
“I remember sitting on the sidelines, watching my older brother, and absolutely vibrating because I wanted to be the one out there,” she said.
The reason she wasn’t allowed to participate?
“I was told it ‘wasn’t ladylike’,” she recalled.
As someone who professes to “love a good stereotype challenge”, she eventually talked her way in and has been competing ever since.
Actions and reactions
One thing Champion stressed to attendees was how important mentors have been in helping her build her career and build resilience.
She described her mentor, Benny ‘The Jet’ Urquidez, as somewhere between Mr Miyagi and Yoda. One thing she was grateful for is that while martial arts is a physical endeavour, Sensei Urquidez stressed “internal training” was just as important.
“He would say ‘what’s important is the spirit’,” Champion said.
This became clear to her when he matched her with one of his top students during sparring. Champion said the student taunted her, saying things like “hit me little girl”. She lost control on the mat, and lost the match as a result.
Afterwards, Urquidez revealed he asked the student to say those things to her to see how she would react.
“I made someone else’s reality my reality,” she recalled.
“That day I learned that if you can’t control the situation or the outcome, all you can control is your actions.”
Little did she know at the time, but this lesson and others he would dispense would apply to so many personal and professional challenges she was set to face.
This included moving into the full-contact sport of kickboxing. She said that before her first fight, she was absolutely terrified. In that moment, she was reminded to think in terms of ‘10 seconds of courage’, another bit of wisdom imparted on her by her mentor.
“If you can be brave for 10 seconds, you can say or do something that has the potential to alter everything,” she said.
“It happens not in the ring, but at the door of the dressing room. It’s the difference between starting and not starting. If you do nothing, nothing changes.”
This 10-seconds mindset nudged her out the door of the dressing room and carried her into the ring when she competed in her first title fight, even helping her carry on after she broke her hand mid-match.
“I didn’t tell anyone when it happened, because it was about what I was willing to fight through. I had this intuition and feeling that no matter what happened, this was my time,” she said.
And she won, becoming the first woman to win a NSW kickboxing title. (It was illegal for women to compete before then.)
“Use your 10 seconds”
Champion said at the time she was on top of the world, and saw a long career in competitive fighting ahead of her. But life doesn’t always work out that way, and she was thrown another hurdle that saw her have to challenge herself again.
Shortly after winning her first title fight, she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. She applied her 10 seconds of courage mindset to this fight as well, saying she “took treatment one bite at a time”, with each stage a milestone.
“My biggest fear was that I would never be more than a fraction of who I was before,” she said.
From her experience, the treatment felt at times worse than the disease. She recalled a time late in her round of chemotherapy when going into a treatment session felt like too much to face.
“There’s no internal training for chemo,” she said.
Once again, she had to draw on her 10 seconds of courage mindset to get her through the process one step at a time.
Shortly after treatment, she gave a TED talk about her experience and, even though she still felt like she wasn’t who she once was, she ended with a board breaking demonstration in front of a packed room. It was the first time she had done this in more than a year.
That experience — not just breaking the board but giving a TED talk in the first place — reinforced the importance of taking that first leap to say yes to something you don’t think you can do and challenging yourself to show 10 seconds of courage.
“It wasn’t about breaking the board; it’s about how much you want to focus and try,” she told those in the audience.
“It’s about challenging what you think you’re capable of and choosing your own perception of what you can accomplish.”
And to show that anyone can do it, she invited an audience member up on stage to break their own board, which they did successfully. And because it was their last stop after travelling around the country on tour, Champion invited Engineers Australia CEO Dr Bronwyn Evans to smash her own board.
Champion left the audience with a call to challenge themselves 10 seconds at a time.
“Use your 10 seconds,” she said.
“Otherwise, it’s just an idea you heard over lunch.”