29 March 2019

Diversity in engineering: an interview with Felicity Furey

We recently had the pleasure of speaking with Felicity Furey, an Australian social entrepreneur, engineer and leader in all things diversity.

With diversity in engineering an increasing issue and discussion point, Felicity chatted to our Marketing Exec, Keri about how she got to where she is, the barriers she’s faced as a woman in engineering and the work she’s doing to encourage young girls into the industry. If you want to read the highlights of this interview, head here for a summary. 

 

FF: When I was younger, I never really knew what I wanted to do when I finished school. My mum did art and my dad did journalism and they told me to pick subjects I enjoyed. I loved art and history and physics and thought to myself, “what am I going to do with that combination?”

KO: That is quite a combo!

FF: Exactly. I hated maths and I really didn’t like English. My physics teacher suggested that I consider engineering, but I thought “oh, engineering, you’ve got to be really smart and it’s doing maths all day and I don’t want to do maths in my career, that just sounds really boring”. When I was applying for university I ended up putting it as my fifth preference and that was the course I got onto.

I opted for civil engineering, so focused on the built environment that we live in. I liked that you got to use maths and science and apply it to solve problems for people and help them.

When I graduated I started off as a structural engineer, which wasn’t really my cup of tea, I suppose because it was very maths and calculation focused, but that’s what I thought engineers did; sit and do calculations. I thought maybe that was just what the rest of my career was going to be like. I carried on in the role and hated it; I didn’t want to stand out too much having been the only woman in my team at uni – there were only 12 women and 120 guys!

I thought I should just try and blend in as much as possible – be the maths and science person and not very creative. I then ended up getting made redundant from that job (it was a global financial crisis) and instead got a job as a project manager which was a lot more people-focused, which I liked.

I worked with a council, quite a big one, and got to go and talk to people, to talk to the community, and thought it was really cool. I had a lot of misconceptions about what engineering was and I’m very lucky that I ended up going into this industry because it wasn’t a traditional career path that I took.

KO: I like what you say about engineering being creative because that’s not what people generally think. I definitely wouldn’t think of engineering as creative.

FF: The last role I had before the job I’m in now was working on a really big tunnel and road infrastructure project. I was a design manager and ultimately the client was the government, with other engineers designing and constructing the project. We were sort of this middle person in between all of those different parties.

The only time I used a spreadsheet was to track the hours of my day that I worked on the project, I didn’t do any calculations at all. My main job was to negotiate between the government, the company I was working for and the designing and constructing engineers, so I had to be really creative in my communication; how to solve problems and think of solutions that would make everybody happy and fulfil everyone’s expectations of a design. Sometimes that meant getting really creative about how to solve that problem.

KO: That’s really interesting and it’s not necessarily how you would think of engineering from the outside at all. It’s great to hear it from your side.

FF: With project management you have time, cost and quality and you have to pick two, you can’t have all three. So then you have to get creative in how you’re actually going to deliver the project.

KO: That’s pretty cool and actually does sound quite creative, it’s not just maths and calculations.

I watched your TedX talk last week and you were talking about going into high schools and speaking with girls, and that you feel it was changed some of their minds about considering a career in engineering. What did those one-day events look like?

FF: We’ve run over 100 events across Australia with the same event structure: we’ll have around 10 students from 10 schools come to one location – it could be a university or a school in the area or even a local company might host it. We get 100 students together in one group, they hear a little bit of an introduction about what engineering is, then they rotate through a series of workshops.

The workshops might include them making a prosthetic leg out of PVC piping and wood and dish cloths. The designs are usually terrible – they don’t work, they have to try it a few times, but what they realise is that they’re making things, they’re failing, they’re trying new ideas and they actually understand that what they’re making is for people.

The idea is to give the students a taste of different types of engineering. There will also be a lunch session with a keynote speaker – it will be someone talking about their career experiences, projects they’ve worked on, so the students can get a sense of what a day in the life of an engineer is.

Then at the end of the day they do a site tour – it could be something like Qantas’ 8380 hangar or they’ve gone to power plants, hospitals and construction sites. They actually talk to the engineers who are working there and get to see engineering in real life and what they do.

We’ve reached over 9,000 students now as well. It’s pretty cool.

KO: I never had anything like that at school and I wouldn’t have considered a career in engineering, but had someone come into my school and told me what it was and shown me practically then maybe I would so I think it’s amazing that you’re doing that for young girls.

FF: Yeah and that’s the whole reason that we do it, because my teacher inspired me. And if he didn’t inspire me, I wouldn’t be an engineer.

KO: Did you face any adversity when you were studying to become an engineer? As you say in your talks, you might not look like what people expect a typical engineer to be and I wonder if that held you back at all? Did you find that your male counterparts treated you differently throughout your studies?

FF: There was definitely a difference in how my male colleagues interacted with me. I remember walking into my first lecture because I was late and it was one of those old school lecture rooms where you have to walk at the front and then the staircase is in the middle so you have to walk in front of everyone to get to a seat. I walked into that and it was full of boys. That was significant for me because I went to an all-girls school which is quite common where I grew up in Brisbane and we were kind of told “don’t interact with boys”, you know, like any good Catholic girls school. And I thought, “who are these people and how do I interact with them?!” I found I stopped being myself because I was trying to fit in with them and trying to joke around when they would tease each other. And I don’t like doing that.

And then when I started working at the council I was the only woman in one of my teams, which could be tough at times and definitely felt like a stereotypical male-centred workplace at times.

I don’t often talk about that side of things though, because I want to focus on inspiring young women into engineering. There are lots of women out there who’ve never had negative experiences in engineering. But I do think it’s important to talk about these issues.

KO: What do you think are the biggest issues facing diversity and inclusion in engineering? Do you think it’s gender roles?

FF: I do talk about gender a lot because it’s very measurable. For me, diversity in engineering is actually about people who are creative and think differently. Diversity of thought as well as physical diversity.

I think stereotypes and perceptions and our culture play a big part in it. Australia and the UK are very similar in terms of the percentage of women in engineering. It’s quite low, I think in the UK it’s 13-15% and in Australia it’s 12%. The US has got a similarly low percentage. But then you look at countries like Iran or Mongolia where there’s a much higher level of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

KO: Wow, you wouldn’t expect that, would you?

FF: I think there’s a cultural challenge around gender roles in our society of “women do these things, men do those things”. Growing up I didn’t experience that and so I didn’t realise that there would be that few women in engineering.

I love going on construction sites. I renovated a house with my husband last year and he really pushed me to learn how to do things and perform traditionally ‘male’ tasks and is really supportive in that way.

One challenge is definitely around cultural stereotypes and what people feel that they can do or can’t do. Men might feel that they should be an engineer because that’s a ‘manly’ thing to do.

KO: Those gender roles need subverting, don’t they? Because anyone can do anything really.

FF: Absolutely. There’s a really great resource that was developed by the Society of Women Engineers in the UK called People Like Me. It talks a lot about those stereotypes.

The other challenge I think is that women know the stuff that they have to do on a daily basis just to do their job. And it can be really simple things like, “I need to negotiate with the state government and the contractor, I’m the only one in the room representing my company, there are 12 other people there and I’m the only woman, how do I make sure that my voice is heard and my point is communicated in that environment?”

As a woman in that situation, I need to think through a lot of steps. And I feel like a lot of men might say, “I never have to do that, I just say what I think”, and they don’t need to navigate that. And I think a lot of men that I explain this to are surprised that I have to think like that, whereas women aren’t surprised by it at all. It’s something they deal with every day.

KO: That’s a really interesting point because my next question was going to be the obvious one of how can engineering become more diverse? And I think the answer people tend to give is always education – going into schools like you’re doing and teaching girls that actually they can get into the field. But actually, do you think educating boys and men on the struggles that women face could also be just as helpful and should be as much of a focus?

FF: Definitely! I don’t know what it’s like in the UK, but I know a lot of the time when I go to ‘women in engineering’ events, it’s mainly women attendees… but we already know the issues! We need to talk to men about it.

So often the people who can make positive change for diversity and inclusion in engineering are men in leadership (because there are so many of them). I find it challenging being a woman who talks about diversity because people can be a bit, “oh there’s a woman talking about diversity again” about it. We need more men to be included and vocal in the conversation.

The interesting thing is that I find when men have daughters, that’s when they actually when they want to take action on this.

KO: Which is almost frustrating in itself? Men shouldn’t have to be a father of a daughter to expect gender equality at work.

FF: Yes! I think it’s about men and women working together, and we have some really great programmes for that in Australia. There’s one called Male Champions of Change which works to encourage powerful men to stand up beside women in support of gender equality. The Diversity Council of Australia have amazing resources and they’ve done this whole thing around the cultural glass ceiling, or the bamboo ceiling as they call it.

There’s also WGEA –  Workplace Gender Equality Australia – and they set a whole bunch of standards around workplaces. A lot of companies get endorsed by them.

There’s also Work 180 that actually just launched in the UK. It’s a jobs board but they only let companies on there that are diverse and work-friendly towards women – things like you can access parental leave within three months of starting. And if a company wants to be on their jobs board but isn’t quite meeting the right standards then they’ll also help them get up to scratch with diversity targets.

KO: And it’s really interesting what you said about the organisation ensuring people only speak on diverse panels. I looked at some of the engineering events here in the UK and looking at the panels can be quite depressing, because it is so often a list of white men with very few women and people of ethnic minorities. So there’s clearly a long way to go.

FF: Yeah, I think it’s important that we have men and women talking about it and also people of colour too. Just this morning I met a women from Zimbabwe who is literally the first female, black, African engineer that I’ve met.

KO: Like you say, people talking about it and the work that we do with companies to ensure that they are being more diverse and are aware of these issues, that kind of stuff can really help.

FF: For sure. And actually, another big focus should be on role models. When it comes to attracting women into engineering, research shows that it’s helpful to have female role models to attract them in but also to make sure they are relatable. It shouldn’t be, “here’s Susie, Susie is a NASA astronaut, she got straight A’s in maths”, I try to tell it to people how it is; that I failed maths at uni and hated it, but still got into engineering anyway. It’s more letting girls know “hey, it’s going to be okay and you don’t need be the smartest person in the room”.

When it comes to retaining women in engineering, it doesn’t matter if the role model is female or male, either gender is great. So I think we definitely need to involve men in the conversation more and not just treat it as a women’s issue.

 

What a brilliant chat we had about some very real issues that are facing the engineering industry. You can check out Felicity’s website for more on what she does or connect with her on LinkedIn.

 

If you’d like some help with your D&I efforts, or just to chat to us more about how we might be able to help you, get in touch; we’d love to hear from you.

 

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