29/08/18

Supporting Women in Engineering

When you were a child do you remember being asked: So, what do you want to do when you grow up? It’s a question commonly posed and often receives a multitude of responses: doctor, teacher, artist, entrepreneur, landscaper, hairdresser, truck driver, on and on and on… Strangely, the response seldom is “an engineer!” But why?

On Thursday 23 August Civilex staff members attended the Engineers Australia ‘Senior Women in Engineering Lunch’ event at Trunk – a 1850s synagogue restored into an incredibly cool bar and diner, complete with a huge beer garden and rooftop beehives. The guest speaker at the sold-out event was Dr Collette Burke, the first Victorian Chief Engineer. Organised by Engineers Australia and hosted by MC Louise Adams, Regional Director of Victoria and South Australia – Aurecon, the Lunch was an opportunity for senior engineers (and many non-engineers) to come together and celebrate the careers of women in senior engineering roles.

Thumbs up in supporting Women in Engineering. L-R: Lisa Cole, Olivia Bartolo, Sandra Costanzo, Holly Sanders, Jen Robertson, Dr Collette Burke, and Karen Burnie.

The primary focuses of the event: the rewards of a long-term career in engineering, and how we can contribute to the retention of our female colleagues and young professionals. The question of why women have stuck with the profession was also explored, as were ways in which we can support and encourage our female colleagues to stay in engineering and progress their career further.

So…back to that question “why not?”

Why aren’t more young people aspiring for a career in engineering? And why is gender within our profession so out of balance? Although the answer we were after was not clearly defined, we discovered two of the main players were high school days career advisors thinking outside the box when it comes to engineering and a real need for more visible female role models in our industry.

Collette shared her career journey: the ups and the downs – from walking into a site office with nude calendars displayed, and being excluded from men-only invites to engineering networking events, to being asked when she was coming back full time after giving birth to her son, and having no access to female mentors or sponsors (because there just weren’t any).

Despite this (or, because of this) Collette has emerged determined to change the status quo for women in engineering (currently at 13.6%) but also for the entire engineering profession. Collette said, “Engineering is such an unassuming profession – as female engineers, we want to lead what’s happening out there – climate change, city congestion, water quality – it’s engineers that hold the answers to these complex issues.”

In a previous post celebrating International Women in Engineering Day featuring Civilex Construction Manager Jen Robertson shared her journey. Last week Jen Robertson attended the Senior Women in Engineering event and enjoyed Collette’s frank and honest account of her own career and leadership journey. Jen says “Collette didn’t hide what was luck and what was tactical, and [she] shared valuable career advice she’d received from others.”

As a graduate starting out in the construction industry Jen had heard about Collette’s experiences. “She was a legend in my eyes. This amazing engineer who would have been a great PM if she didn’t have to go off and have babies! But I kept hearing more and more about her. Collette and her husband had their own consulting company. She managed to get a PhD in risk management while she was “off having babies”, she was a Lecturer at RMIT and she was National Director for NAWIC.”

Nine years after first hearing about Collette, Jen finally got to meet the legend in person when Collette joined the company Jen was then working for. “I was not disappointed. Collette always encouraged me and was a tremendous support while I went through the ‘baby stage’ of my career. She was integral to me being promoted to PM after returning from maternity leave and taking on our company’s first PM job-share role.” Jen has always looked up to Collette not just for delivering speeches which inspire, but also because she walks the talk. “Collette tackles problems head-on and then delivers outcomes. Not only that, she is always looking for new and wonderful things to become involved in such as research and development projects on the cutting edge of technology.”

Jen believes Collette has always had time to support women in the industry. “She makes time to speak at events like this one. She opens up and talks frankly about her own experiences, and then takes the time to listen to other women in the industry who want to pick her brain.”

Civilex Estimating Manager Karen Burnie attended the Engineers Australia event also. It was the first time Karen had met Collette Burke and Karen too found her to be an engaging, inspirational speaker. “It was so good to listen to Collette’s unique career journey and be reassured that as engineers we don’t have to stay on the so-called ‘I want to be a PM’ circuit. Rather, we can choose to take time away from climbing the traditional construction career ladder and pursue other pathways. It was refreshing to hear other routes to senior positions within the construction industry exist.”

Collette is committed to being an ‘agent of change’ in the engineering field – ensuring engineers are the advisors, leaders and influencers of our modern world. In her own words: “It’s time for The Age of the Engineer!” Thank you Engineers Australia for a wonderful event.

About Dr Collette Burke

Chief Engineer of Victoria, Managing Director at Exner Group and Director at VicTrack

Dr Burke has spent more than 25 years in the engineering and construction industry with major contractors moving through a variety of roles from Site Engineer, Executive Manager to Managing Director of many organisations. She is an internationally acknowledged researcher with a PhD in risk management and value for money on major infrastructure projects. Her strong industry research background includes work as a Senior Lecturer and Course Advisor at the University of Melbourne and RMIT University in collaboration with Victorian Department of Treasury and Finance.

She has a drive for greater operational outcomes, a focus on strategic and forward planning, people development, effective delivery and commercial strategy. Her passion to give back to the industry has led the creation of engineering consultancy and education firms, Exner Group and Karsta in the Middle East, in the role of Managing Director. Dr Burke was also the former National Director of the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC), with a focus on building skills through education for members in the industry.

She has since been appointed a Director of VicTrack and Victorian Chief Engineer. Her appointment as the first Victorian Chief Engineer will allow her to provide expert advice to the Government on major project design and engineering.

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