Interview with a fellow STEM Mom
1. What does your everyday work entail?
Leading a team of 7 Mechanical Engineers in providing technical support to the NZ business, in a bid to improve and optimise plant operation, reliability, safety and efficiency. The plant produces methanol from natural gas, which is largely supplied to the Asian market.
2. What career path led you to your current work?
In my final year of school I was awarded a bursary from SASOL to study a Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering, and I went on to complete my Masters too. SASOL were amazing in the opportunities they provided – I worked and lived in the Vaal Triangle, Munich (Germany), and Secunda. I started in the project execution space and migrated into the static equipment space after a few years. I had many great international opportunities along the way. Many years later I moved to a Chevron refinery in Cape Town to hold the position of Lead Mechanical Engineer for the facility. After a couple of years wanting a change in scenery, I took on a role of Design Verification Engineer. This provided great flexibility with very young children, but a few years later, I decided the Lead Mechanical Engineer role was for me and accepted an offer at a Methanol producer in New Zealand.
3. How did you decide to move into this career path?-was it a certain person or moment which initiated it all?
At school I loved the sciences. I was drawn to both medicine and engineering, and it was initially an interest in orthopaedic engineering which got me into Mechanical Engineering. However, I diverted from this path early on, and enjoyed the challenge of the engineering in industry.
4. Was there ever a time that you recall wanting to change paths & what convinced you to continue on your chosen path?
About 5 years after working in the petrochemical industry, I dabbled with the thought of going back to the orthopaedic engineering dream, which would involve going back to university, abroad. I investigated this option for a while and started working through text-books to confirm interest in the study material. I decided that the field of engineering I find myself currently working in also holds a lot of interest for me. It was at that time that I shifted my focus from general project engineering into static equipment. Mechanical Engineering is an extremely broad-based discipline, and I decided to build on what I had started, rather than starting all over again.
5. Give us a brief description of a normal/extraordinary 24hours in your life. (You can choose one 😋)
I tend to wake at 04h30 to head out for a run or hit a session on the stationary trainer. Then after a super quick shower, making oats for the herd, and maybe squeezing in a book with my daughter (who is learning to read); I’ll shoot off to work whilst hubby gets the kids to school.
At work it’s usually a varied day. It ranges from: addressing issues relating to executing changes on the plant by the team, responding to issues that need engineering input, and corporate governance tasks requiring my input. My work location also varies, in that I can be in safety gear on the plant, or in the office. At this stage of my career, it’s usually office work though. I try grab a moment or two during lunch to check pertinent news topics, or get onto online banking to pay some bills awaiting my attention.
At 16h30 I head out the door and go fetch my 4-year old son from pre-school, and hear about the exhausting day he’s had (he talks, a lot). Then I fetch my 7-year old daughter from after-school care, and manage the bickering that often goes on in that back seat.
I try keep them away from the TV most days, so we’ll usually head out for a ride along the local paths, walk along a trail, or walk to the local park, or my son’s favourite: mow the lawn!
Then it’s back inside, and between my husband and I we’ll tackle the chores: get them bathed, get any laundry into the washing machine and drier, prep lunch for the next day, get dinner cooked (or re-heated….BIG fan of left overs!), everyone fed and teeth brushed. Then it’s a group bed-time story, and lights out by 8pm. My lights dim at about 9pm, and so I’m usually out by 10pm.
6. Name the one thing which excites you about your field of work.
Engineering is a broad based discipline in which to be; Mechanical Engineering particularly so. It’s exciting (and sometimes daunting) that I could move into a completely different field if it interested me. I’ve had colleagues move into investment banking, business analytics, and further afield. It’s also exciting that my engineering degree is recognised in so many countries internationally, and thus I can move almost anywhere and work straight away (unlike many other professions).
I enjoy the ability to get stuck into the detail design, and crunch numbers in detailed calculations to my heart’s content. And the next day it’s back to managing the team and considering how personalities play a role in team outputs. And next week may see me in overalls crawling into equipment and climbing ladders to the top of columns to get a look at something. It’s a very varied work environment.
7. What has your experience been like being a woman in STEM?
My first negative experience was in my first year at university, where a few male class-mates made it very clear that I was only there as token female representation and to clean the board for them between lectures. That stoked a fire of note and I went on to be awarded top first year engineering student, and at the end of my degree, the top engineering faculty graduate.
I understand that many women experience major issues working in STEM fields, but I have been very fortunate to experience very little of that once I left that first year of University Engineering behind! However, one area, where I feel the impact; is the need for women to “prove” themselves, before gaining the credibility in any work discussion (particularly technical) that a more junior male colleague would have by default. It should be noted that this is more evident in new work environments, and tends to disappear as time passes within the organisation.
One tip a female senior colleague gave me years ago, to address the cat-calling which occurred from time to time on the plant when I first started work, was to never look new on site. Although the work-place has been properly cleaned up in terms of that behaviour, I find that I still can’t leave new safety gear alone. The first thing I do is scuff the shoes, rub my new overalls on some dirt outside, and scratch up my hard hat just a little! My gear never looks new!
8. Do you find that there are still barriers within the STEM field?
In my area of work I do not feel that there are still barriers. However, I do note that I do not aspire to hold lofty positions in the organisation, preferring the more technical roles, and have perhaps also been lucky in that respect. Perhaps in other fields of engineering, or positions of great stature, these barriers still exist.
9. Did becoming a mom change how you experienced your field of work?
I feel that I’ve always had a good grasp of work-life balance, but having kids waiting to see me has definitely made me more conscious of getting home on time. I’m far less willing to spend extra time at work unnecessarily, particularly when it’s due to a badly chaired meeting running overtime, or ramblings of colleagues who have nowhere else to be. I’ve also had to let go that I will probably not get to absolutely everything myself within usual working hours, and may need to delegate more tasks. Let’s call it a preference for empowering others! 😊
10. How do you think organisational spaces could be improved upon in order to better support women in STEM?
Something that is always a challenge, particularly with young ones, is sick kids. The reality is that getting the kids to the doctor often lies with Mom (but my awesome support network deserves a special mention here, who are always willing to assist). Taking time to attend to family needs is always a challenge when you have a handful of days per year available to you. So I am deeply appreciative of my current employer’s progressive stance of having unlimited domestic leave, and relies on trust that it won’t be abused. They also provide the facility of flexible working hours to define working hours that suit you. I hope more companies move in this direction.
11. What do you hope to achieve within your career, whether in the short/long term?
I don’t have aspirations of climbing to the top rung of the corporate ladder, but rather have aspirations of enjoying my job as far as possible. If that takes me higher, or keeps me right where I am, I’m OK with that. I admire people who have ambitious career goals, but I have decided that’s not important for me. I think that’s important too!
12. Would you encourage your little one(s) & other young girls to move into a career similar to your own & why?
I keep emphasising to my daughter she can be anything she wants to be. Totally up to her. I have caught her proudly telling people that her mom is an engineer, but I will neither discourage or encourage this field of work. I do encourage aspirations of greatness, but the field is her choice.
13. What's your favourite mom & kiddie activity?
Getting outdoors – when I go running while my daughter rides alongside we have the most amazing conversations and I get insights into her social concerns at school and her thoughts as they roll.
My son loves to clean, so although not mine, his favourite activity (so that has to make me happy) is cleaning.
14. Please could you give fellow STEM moms some advice on how to navigate the challenges within our field.
I’ve seen very strong women in the field of engineering at my workplaces, and the common denominator is that they are all true to themselves and believe in themselves and their worth. They don’t try to be someone they aren’t. It’s that simple.
But to get the balance right, I genuinely think that you need surround yourself with a killer team at home. My husband (also an engineer) has always been amazing, going with the flow and the challenges that I’ve thrown at him. We share the domestic burden at home completely, and furthermore he has made big career sacrifices of his own to achieve goals we have as a family (he’s moved abroad or across country with me without another job lined up, thrice!).
My parents have also been extremely supportive and helpful throughout my life and career, from my university studies through to new babies. I can honestly say I owe everything to my fabulous team.