Women engineers’ inspiration and industry have helped change the world and transform society. For International Women’s Day, create is celebrating 10 of Australia’s influential women in engineering.
1. Dr Marlene Kanga
Dr Marlene Kanga is a chemical engineer acknowledged for her leadership, including as 2018 Professional Engineer of the Year.
As the President of the World Federation of Engineering Organizations (WFEO), the global peak professional body, she advocates for engineers to change the world, and for the engineering profession to change itself.
WFEO, aligned closely with UNESCO, represents almost 30 million engineers and 100 professional engineering associations worldwide.
It has a strategic focus on advancing the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals for 2030, including achieving zero hunger, sustainable cities, and clean water and sanitation.
Engineering is vital for each of the 17 to be achieved, said Kanga.
“Engineers have the skills and capacity to make change. We are problem solvers,” she told create.
“We can use systematic approaches to develop and implement solutions. WFEO has a high priority on engineering education because this, from an engineering perspective, has potential to have the greatest impact.”
Kanga specialised in process safety engineering for hazardous industries.
“I drafted the first Land Use Safety Criteria for hazardous industries, which has been adopted in legislation in Australia, New Zealand and Singapore, keeping millions safe,” she said.
Her career has taken in entrepreneurship, consulting, and numerous directorship positions, including as Chair of Engineers Australia — the second woman to hold the position.
“My achievements in 2013 include the first consolidated Member Regulations and the Vision Statement, a compass for the organisation turning our values into action,” she said.
Kanga has used leadership roles to highlight serious issues in the profession, such as Australia’s poor record in training and retaining female engineers, and the effect on the country’s international competitiveness and capacity to innovate.
“I made world-first changes to support women in engineering, including the Career Break Policy for Chartered Engineers in 2008,” she said, “which provides flexible continued professional development requirements for those on a career break.”
This year is the second in Kanga’s two-year term leading WFEO and coincides with Engineers Australia’s Centenary and Australia’s hosting of the Word Engineers Convention 2019, which is themed around six of the Sustainable Development Goals.
2. Flavia Tata Nardini
As co-founder and CEO of Fleet Space Technologies, Flavia Tata Nardini has been an advocate for Australians working to make their mark in the growing commercial space sector.
Her interest in space started as a young girl in Rome. She speaks of spending hours reading books about space and looking at the stars.
“As a young girl, I wanted to be an astronaut. By five years old, I wanted to build rockets,” she said.
And that’s exactly what she did. She received an undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering, then a master’s in space engineering. After relocating to Adelaide in 2012, she wasted no time in joining the ranks of Australian innovators.
Fleet Space Technologies is thinking small to accomplish big things. Tata Nardini’s dream is to create a ‘digital nervous system’, whereby constellations of nanosatellites can connect everything on Earth.
Recently, Fleet took its first steps towards this goal, launching four nanosatellites into orbit 600 km above the Earth in November 2018.
According to Tata Nardini, this is a first for Australia’s private space sector, and more are set to follow as Fleet builds out its constellation of 100 nanosatellites.
Tata Nardini was a key member of the Expert Reference Group that oversaw the review and consultation process that led to the founding of the Australian Space Agency in mid-2018. In December 2018, she was thrilled to see the agency find a home in Adelaide.
“On the world stage, Australia is now a credible space hub that can attract international aerospace experts, industry heavyweight companies and ambitious start-ups,” she said.
Beyond her own accomplishments, Tata Nardini works to create opportunities for Australia’s next generation of space engineers and entrepreneurs.
“For our space agency to thrive, we must inspire the next generation of rocket scientists, software engineers and entrepreneurs to look to the stars for a rewarding career,” she said.
She co-founded Delta-V, a start-up accelerator. Another company, Launchbox, focuses on sparking an interest in space engineering for school-aged kids.
“I have spent time with students from six years to 18 years old who are completely in love with space,” she said.
“It’s very high-tech, but it connects to dreams and passion. It’s fascinating to see that, no matter how old they are, or if they’re boys or girls, they love space.”
3. Dr Mehreen Faruqi
“Rightly or wrongly, my life choices have never been about the next job or rung on the career ladder, but how and where I could work collaboratively to mobilise people to work together towards a better and more fair society,” said Dr Mehreen Faruqi, engineer and Greens Senator for New South Wales.
“My journey from an engineer to a politician has always been underpinned by a desire to do good with a social and environmental conscience.”
Having moved to Australia from Pakistan in 1992 to complete a PhD in Environmental Engineering at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), Faruqi went on to work as a civil and environmental engineer.
“Civil engineering has given me the opportunity to work across disciplinary boundaries in consulting, local government, research and teaching,” she said.
“I’ve worked with communities to restore rainforests, build cycleways, reuse stormwater and establish large scale renewable energy projects.”
But what motivated her most powerful career move, the one that saw her entering politics, was her interest in feminist and environmental activism.
In 2004 Faruqi joined the Port Macquarie Greens and in 2013 she was appointed to the upper house of the NSW Parliament.
Faruqi introduced the first bill to decriminalise abortion, forced the government to disclose evidence of mass outsourcing of public sector work and advocated for a container deposit scheme.
In August 2018, she was sworn in to the Australian Senate, the first female Muslim senator in the nation’s history.
Faruqi’s work has not gone unnoticed. For her efforts on abortion she won the Edna Ryan Grand Stirrer award for “inciting others to challenge the status quo”. She has received the UNSW Faculty of Engineering Award for Leadership and was named one of the 100 most influential engineers in Australia
“Engineering is as much about visionary thinking as it is about analysis, design and transforming ideas into reality,” she said.
“We need this innovative thinking more than ever before to shape a future where we take radical action on climate change, protect our ecosystem, create an equal society and have prosperity and sustainability across the globe.”
4. Elizabeth Taylor
There’s a small, timber jetty on Sydney’s Rozelle Bay that symbolises Elizabeth Taylor’s love of engineering.
It’s the first piece of infrastructure she ever designed, the first built object with which she made her mark on the landscape, on her community.
She has since worked on projects far larger and more noteworthy, including parts of the Darling Harbour development, but the jetty holds a special place in her memory.
“The jetty was to help dockworkers who would typically have to leap onto the high wharf from their small boat. With the jetty, they could simply moor then step off their boat safely. I’m very proud of that timber jetty — and my children are absolutely sick of hearing about it!”
The fact that she created something of use to the community was particularly satisfying.
Engineers tend to think they know what community means, Taylor said. But today, more than ever, it is important for engineers of all disciplines to ask who is their community, and what does the community want, need and expect.
“Because I always asked those questions, I ended up being given opportunities, such as being on the board of RedR,” she said.
“The assumption was that because I care about community, I’d be interested in humanitarian engineering.”
The assumption was correct, and she’s not alone. Many engineers are willingly engaging in discussion and action around issues facing humanity, Taylor said.
This begins with the communities affected by the work they do.
“‘Humanitarian’ is no longer an add-on to what we do; it is central to who we are,” she said.
RedR (Registered Engineers for Disaster Relief) is no longer just about engineers, Taylor said.
More than 23 different professions are involved, all working together as a team to build community resilience and alleviate the impacts of disaster or war. It’s the way of the future for engineering.
“We engineers tended to view ourselves as heroic, as people who harnessed the resources of nature for the use and convenience of man,” she said.
“That was an 18th-century, Western ideal. We now need to be far more humble and more sensitive to the fact that we are one part of the much larger collective of humanity that needs to work together to protect our planet, our home, and respect each other’s inputs.”
5. Professor Judy Raper
Professor Judy Raper is one of Australia’s greatest female engineers — and she has the accolades to back that up.
The University of New South Wales (UNSW) Faculty of Engineering bestows the Ada Lovelace Medal annually to an outstanding female engineer. This past November the honour went to Raper, a chemical engineer whose achievements have put her on the global stage.
Soon after, she was presented with a Member of the Order of Australia award in the 2019 Australia Day Honours List.
Raper told create the recognition is gratifying.
“Of course. But really, I have been around for a long time and I’m mostly grateful to still be making a contribution,” she said.
That contribution takes a new form in 2019. Raper is heading to the United Kingdom to begin a role as Founding Lead of PLuS Engineering at the PLuS Alliance, a global partnership between UNSW, Arizona State University, and King’s College London.
“We are going to train entrepreneurial engineers who are globally focused and socially aware,” she said.
“As the whole venture is a startup, I have to focus on getting staff, getting students, developing a curriculum and a campus, and finally — I guess we’ll have to have some governance!”
Raper’s career has included a role as Dean of Engineering at the University of Sydney and positions in the United States at the Missouri University of Science and Technology and the National Science Foundation.
Most recently, she was Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Innovation) at the University of Wollongong. In 2017, she won the Chemeca Medal, the most prestigious award in chemical engineering in Australia and New Zealand. Raper was UNSW’s first female chemical engineering graduate and now only the second woman to win the Chemeca prize.
When it comes to diversity, Raper urges engineers to consider their implicit biases.
“We should be looking at ourselves and asking why we are biased,” she said.
“The more we surround ourselves with diverse people, the more open-minded we will become.”
6. Trish White
Trish White has been National President and Chair of Engineers Australia since 2018, following a wildly varied career taking in defence engineering, senior executive roles, state politics and more.
She is now focused on some of the engineering profession’s major challenges. Asked what these include shortly after becoming head of Engineers Australia, she cited the pace of change in the current industrial revolution (or Industry 4.0), achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, inspiring the next generation of engineers and addressing the country’s lack of homegrown engineers.
“In this country we import many more engineers than we train in our institutions, and only 12 per cent of our engineering workforce is women,” she told create.
“There’s a huge amount of talent there currently untapped.”
As the National President of Engineers Australia, White is part of the organisation’s effort to ‘walk the talk’, which includes a goal of 30 per cent women in leadership roles by 2020.
Female role models are an important part of addressing gender imbalance, and White believes “it’s hard to be what you cannot see”.
White studied arts and electrical engineering at the University of Queensland, and her CV includes positions in applied research at the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (now DST Group), as a senior executive at WorleyParsons, and, until 2010, as a member of the South Australian Parliament.
“You certainly find out that the skills of an engineer are very transferable,” she told the Beer With an Engineer podcast in November 2018.
“I’ve gone from a broadcast engineer in Queensland to managing national infrastructure projects in Canberra. I’ve gone into defence, I’ve been a politician, a minister of a government, a senior executive of an engineering services company. I’ve founded some of my own businesses, and these days I serve on boards.”
As well as working to correct the profession’s gender imbalance, White wants engineers to have a greater role in decision-making so that this fourth industrial revolution — characterised by the merging of cyber and physical worlds — can create maximum benefit for society.
“It’s the engineers who will make all that technology work for society,” she said.
“New information technology is disrupting business everywhere, reshaping business models. I think we are becoming increasingly relevant and important.”
7. Dr Collette Burke
From work experience on an airport work site when she was 16 to becoming Victoria’s first Chief Engineer, civil engineer Dr Collette Burke has gathered an enviable breadth of experience, education and excellence.
Today, she uses that wealth of knowledge to develop solutions to what she sees as the three major challenges for the future of engineering.
“One is predicting population growth, and what that means for our future cities,” she said.
“Next is the important matter of attracting and retaining more young people into the vibrant engineering sector. Finally, there’s the issue of gender and cultural diversity. We want our industry to represent the diversity of our society.”
After completing a PhD focused on risk management, Burke studied further specialist courses at Harvard University, and has shared her knowledge as a lecturer at the University of Melbourne and RMIT University.
She is currently Managing Director of the engineering consulting firms Exner Group, based in Australia, and Karsta Group, based in the Middle East.
All of this prepared her well for the demands of the Victorian Chief Engineer role, offering her a deep insight into the many issues and decisions surrounding the state’s $10 billion of infrastructure work, including transport, roads, schools, hospitals and more.
“Engineers have very good technical and problem-solving skills, so now it’s important to take those skills and look at how we increase knowledge in this area, how we share information and how we assist others in order to build strategic relationships,” she said.
For two decades Burke has been involved in the National Association for Women in Construction, and in many mentoring and education programs to attract and retain people in engineering. She recently released the Victoria State of Engineering Report, which showcased the many diverse opportunities in engineering.
“Whilst we could all simply do our jobs, this is a perfect time for driving transformation and change,” she said.
“We have an obligation as engineers and as members of our society to step beyond our roles and lead the change we are capable of. This is particularly in the area of seeing future societal needs, understanding complex systems, connecting all parties, problem-solving and developing plans to address the key issues.”
8. Dr Bronwyn Evans
Dr Bronwyn Evans has headed the country’s leading standards organisation, Standards Australia, since 2013.
She began her career at the Electricity Commission of New South Wales’s Tallawarra Power Station after studying electrical engineering at University of Wollongong in the late 1970s, one of few women in the course.
“[Women] were a curiosity, and I feigned an interest in things like fishing and football to fit in,” she has said.
Since then, Evans has advocated for greater female representation in engineering, including through chairing the advisory board of non-profit organisation Robogals for four years.
“I’ve always made myself available to show that women can be leaders in technical professions, and I use every opportunity to advocate for women in the industry, and [to] be a role model,” she said in 2013.
Her senior roles have included Senior Vice President at pioneering Australian bionic ear manufacturer Cochlear.
She recently completed three years as founding chair of MTPConnect, a part of the Federal Government’s Growth Centres initiative.
“In these roles I have worked within organisations that ranged from government departments, global multinationals and NGOs both national and international,” Evans told create.
“Every day I consider myself fortunate to have an engineering background.”
Evans also serves as Vice President (Finance) of the International Standards Organisation, and credits “completely transferable” numeracy skills from engineering as something she uses nearly every day.
Leadership of Standards Australia also means helping lead the nation’s industries and general public into an exciting but complex new technological era.
For major issues and challenges — including smart cities, intelligent transport systems and blockchain — Standards Australia’s mission is to develop internationally aligned Australian standards, assisting in sustainable, safe, and economically productive adoption.
“Taking smart cities as a specific case study, this is important because by 2050 it is estimated that 80 per cent of the world’s population will live in cities, and, as a result, cities will consume 60 per cent of all energy and produce 70 per cent of the world’s waste,” Evans said.
“The issues where standards have an important role and hence why smart cities is part of our portfolio of work include energy generation and distribution, urban mobility systems, water quality, IT and physical security, infrastructure and health and wellbeing.”
9. Karen Andrews
When she began her mechanical engineering degree, Karen Andrews was one of just two women in the entire course. They would go on to become the first female mechanical engineers to graduate from the Queensland University of Technology.
Unfortunately, Andrews said, little has changed.
“Women are still in the minority, and there is no need for that to be the case,” she said.
She worked for six years in the field of engineering, mainly on power stations and petrochemical sites in regional Queensland, and then shifted to industrial relations.
“But even though I went into quite specialist industrial relations, I never left engineering behind,” she said.
One of her greatest lessons from engineering was a methodical and process-oriented approach to decisions and projects, goals and ambitions.
“I look for evidence in my decision-making and I stick to a process — all core skills of an engineer,” Andrews said.
These skills have been vital to her role as the Federal Member for McPherson. Since being elected in 2010, she has served as Chair of the House of Representatives’ Joint Standing Committee on Public Works, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Industry and Science, Assistant Minister for Science, and Assistant Minister for Vocational Education and Skills. In August 2018, she was appointed Minister for Industry, Science and Technology.
Andrews is now one of only a few engineers to have reached the top level of Australian politics.
“I am very keen that my parliamentary colleagues understand science, technology, engineering and maths and the importance of evidence-based decision-making,” she said.
She said she doesn’t understand why so few engineers have been attracted to, or succeeded in, politics.
“Many engineers have taken on study in engineering because of their interest in processes, systems, procedures, and making sure that we’re actually following a particular process design model,” she said.
“Those are skills that would be invaluable to politics, but I don’t think people necessarily see politics as a direct career progression from engineering. I’m going to do my best to change that.”
10. Professor Hala Zreiqat
Grafts from elsewhere in the body are one way to help regenerate bones damaged through injury, illness or infection.
Medical experts, however, often find the body doesn’t have enough bone for grafting.
An entire industry has grown around synthetic bone substitutes and, until Professor Hala Zreiqat’s latest breakthroughs, options have often caused discomfort and are sometimes rejected by immune systems.
A ceramic material developed by Zreiqat and her team can create a platform on which new bone can regenerate. In fact, it encourages the bone regeneration process.
Then it takes a back seat, gradually degrading as natural bone takes over. Eventually it is completely replaced by human bone. And, amazingly, it can be 3D printed.
“The bone substitute my team and I have developed resembles natural bone in terms of architecture, strength and porosity,” she said.
“So it is strong enough to withstand the loads that will be applied to it, and also contains pores that allow blood and nutrients to penetrate it. In this way it is designed to encourage normal bone growth, and to eventually be replaced by natural bone in the body.”
Zreiqat is Director of the ARC Centre for Innovative BioEngineering, which aims to educate the next generation of biomedical engineers, medical specialists and scientists so they can invent and produce products that improve human health.
Zreiqat spent her childhood, university and early career years in Jordan, moving to Sydney to take on a PhD in medical sciences.
Since her move, she has earned international acclaim, including being the first person in New South Wales to be honoured with a prestigious Radcliffe Fellowship from Harvard University and receiving the King Abdullah II Order of Distinction of the Second Class, the highest civilian honour bestowed by the King of Jordan.
In 2018, she was recognised as Woman of the Year at the New South Wales Premier’s Awards for the extraordinary contribution she has made to medicine and research.
“This award just gives you the inspiration to keep developing, keep inventing, keep going further in the world,” Zreiqat said.
“Here I am coming from Jordan and discovering something that the whole world is going to use from New South Wales. Getting recognised for that, I can only thank the country for this.”
Know an amazing woman in engineering who should be on this list? Let us know here.
This article originally appeared as “Power play” in the March 2019 edition of create magazine.