By Megan Berger
Rachel Blewden is a people person. She’s drawn to having a greater understanding of how teams and people work, how people utilise space in the world around them and how to best create functional spaces for all.
It makes sense then that she was drawn to engineering. “I always had a real interest in helping people and making the world we live in a better place, which is why I went into transport engineering,” says Rachel. “Transport has such a huge human element to it. People drive cars, people have to walk along the footpath, people have to cycle amongst traffic. I had a passion to help save people and make roads safer.”
But somewhere along the lines, things changed for Rachel. She felt she didn’t fit the mould that engineers are so often placed into. “I wasn’t sure what my place was, and I think I did stand out a little bit for the fact I had such a keen interest in people and how we worked beyond the technical maths and science part of engineering,” says Rachel. “I had a big interest in exploring how we can help people work to their best potential, especially within an industry like engineering which is so technical. People are your biggest resource, so if you’re not looking after your people, you’re being inefficient and not getting the best for your client, and as a result projects can run over.”
So, Rachel followed her intuition and went back to Uni. Nowadays, as an organisational psychology consultant, she helps with HR consulting – helping people with recruitment selection, talent development, job analysis and more. In short, helping people get the best out of their people. “It is very rare that you are working on your own as an engineer – you are always working in a team. So it’s surprising that a lot of times in engineering people are hired based on pure technical skill, you know, can they do the job,” says Rachel. “But in the long run sometimes they don’t have those client-facing skills or they don’t have the project management skills or they don’t have the same kind of team skills, and those are important factors even in a technical industry like engineering.”
The difference gender makes
Aside from the personality differences she felt, there were a few other factors affecting Rachel’s feelings on the job, and most of them boiled down to things that her male counterparts wouldn’t dream of experiencing. “I could never find a high-vis jacket that fit me properly, which seems like a really a small, minor thing when you say it, but when you are having to go out and be on site and exert your professional image and you have this high-vis jacket that is designed for a man hanging off of you, it starts to get to you,” says Rachel. “They aren’t major things but when they are happening to you all the time they do start to creep in.”
Unfortunately, her experience wasn’t limited to clothing options. “In one of my previous jobs, I was travelling to remote areas a lot, and being female, finding a clean bathroom to use was a real concern for me. But when you try to discuss concerns like that with male counterparts, they don’t understand because they don’t have that same concern. It’s something unique to females,” says Rachel.
While Rachel did experience things that unfortunately many female engineers do, like lack of flexibility, burn out and on-site issues, one issue that she didn’t have in common was a disparity in pay. “I was earning what I deserved in my previous role, and it was on par with my male counterparts,” says Rachel. “You should be paid what you’re worth and by how hard working you are and what you bring to the team. As a female – you just want to feel like you are an engineer. You don’t want to feel like I am a female engineer – you just want to feel like an engineer and I am doing my job.”
Target: role model
While many people think that setting targets for our industry to aspire to is the way to maintain a pipeline for women, Rachel recognises that there’s another piece to the puzzle that needs to be addressed before meaningful change can happen.
“I feel like people should be leaders because they deserve to be there and they have got the skills to be there,” says Rachel. “I think the issue is more around the fact that females are leaving the profession before they even get to that leadership position to then be in a position to take it. I think it comes down to getting to the point where they are not struggling to maintain their family life and then it will naturally happen.”
It’s understood that when someone has a role model or mentor to aspire to, they’re more likely to succeed. Therefore, it might make more sense that one of the inhibitors to women achieving leadership positions is the lack of other women to look up to. At one of Rachel’s previous roles in engineering, she had a particularly empowering role model which enabled her to visualise her own future in the industry. “After moving on from that role to a bigger organisation where there were less senior leaders who were female, I kind of lost that sense of empowerment,” says Rachel. “I couldn’t see my future because I couldn’t see as many females in more leadership positions.”
A more fitting future
Rachel’s experience in engineering was certainly far from perfect, but she has hope that one day she’ll be able to return to the industry. “I would go back if I could combine what I’ve learned with psychology and be able to use it with my engineering skills,” says Rachel. “If I could find an area where I could combine the two with working within public spaces, seeing how people move around a city, why they use public transport and what barriers there are to cycling, that sort of thing. I would be really interested in exploring that one day, but I don’t think I would go back to a purely technical role like what I have done in the past.”
As far as her advice to leaders in engineering on how to improve and better retain talent like herself, it comes as a bit of a no-brainer.
“Providing the necessary equipment and safety gear that females need to feel like they have been thought about is definitely something that is a minor change that can have a big impact,” says Rachel. “As a female you don’t want to feel like you are always wearing male safety gear and feel as though nothing was designed with you in mind. It would also benefit to be able to explore your unique skills and combine it with your technical skills.”