This month, we chat with Van Tang, GHD’s General Manager for New Zealand and Pacific. In the first of a two-part chat with Sean Barker from the Diversity Agenda, Van discusses her journey into engineering as a refugee, the discovery of the ‘guilt phenomenon’ and why we still don’t have enough females in senior leadership.
I want to start with your pathway into the profession as a civil engineer.
You were born in Vietnam, raised in Australia, and studied engineering in Adelaide. What brought you to Australia?
I came to Australia as a refugee with my father. My family belonged to a Chinese minority living in Vietnam. My father was in the South Vietnamese Army and needed to leave – so he and I left when I was around 3 years old, while the rest of my family remained in Vietnam. This was in the late ’70s early ’80s – a very different social environment to today.
At the time, the only place he could find work was in rural outback Australia and an Australian family helped settle us. I had the fortune of living with an Australian family, as well as my Chinese father. My mother didn’t come to Australia for another 5 or so years.
I always say I’m a good science experiment, where you have nature versus nurture. There are huge parts of me that are absolute nature, which I have inherited from my Chinese parents, and then there’s the nurture part that has come from my Australian family.
Why did you choose engineering?
I studied engineering because my Australian father worked in the engineering sector. When I got my first car, he made me pull the whole thing apart and then put it back together. I loved the process of it and problem solving along the way, especially when it was time to put it back together. I also loved STEM subjects – especially maths and science. It was a natural pathway for me when I decided to study engineering.
But, to tell you the truth, I studied engineering never intending to make it my career. At the time I began my degree I was still figuring out what I was truly passionate about. Engineering teaches you to solve problems and that’s what I loved about it most. After the first couple of years in my degree, I started to consider what next. I realised that I really enjoyed what I was doing and started thinking about this as a career path a whole lot more.
How diverse were the people you were studying with?
There were only two or three women in my graduating year in civil and structural engineering. There would have been more in environmental engineering and there was a fair bit of cultural diversity even then.
In your first role after study, did you join a diverse workforce?
I was in an organisation that had no technical women for a long time except for myself. As a young grad I really didn’t know the difference. It wasn’t until another female engineer joined the firm some years later, that I realised that gender diversity had been missing and how important it was in the workplace. I became really aware of diversity in the workplace after this and it is one of the reasons I joined GHD. We have such a diverse business.
You said you didn’t originally study engineering to have a career within the profession. What changed?
It’s the constant variety that’s helped me continue in this profession. I love that about it. I think in engineering and architecture, every project is different and that motivates me. There’s so much complexity to it and there are always new innovations and technologies that enable us to design amazing outcomes. I feel that in another profession, like medicine, I would’ve been doing the same procedure over and over so I count myself fortunate to be an engineer and it aligns with my passion and motivations.
What barriers have you had to overcome in engineering as a woman and someone with a different cultural background to the majority? What do you hope will be different for the next generation?
I’ve got two children and I wasn’t aware of the so-called ‘guilt phenomenon’ until having children. Being a mother, wife, and engineer, I held that guilt and could not work out how to overcome it. It took me a little while, but eventually I learnt to make career decisions that would be best for myself and the family. Working through that didn’t come easily and I am lucky to have a great support network around me who have championed me to achieve my goals in both my personal and professional life.
Coming from Vietnam as a refugee I really hope we start to see some greater opportunities for refugees and migrants in our society and communities.
If I think about it in terms of infrastructure, a lot of these refugees and migrants have come from far more congested places than New Zealand and Australia. So you know what? They bring experiences that are essential for us to be able to design and deliver outcomes that address some of the challenges we are facing. They can add tremendous value from their own lived experiences and share them here.
Looking forward, I think there needs to be a real focus on succession planning in our industry. We need to think about how we can ensure that our emerging leaders are supported and given the right opportunities to continue to grow professionally. As a current leader, I understand the importance of enabling that to happen which includes mentoring and sharing my own story to empower people to take on new opportunities that they might not have considered before.
“My legacy and ultimately my success will be enabling the next generation of leaders to realise their potential.”Van Tang
What improvements do you think have been made in diversity and inclusion within our professions since you started your career?
Awareness and education. Industries are now wanting more diverse candidates in their workplace and are openly looking for it. And it’s not tokenism, it’s a genuine recognition that “We need a diverse workplace.” Now that these conversations are being heard, the support is there for leaders in organisations to drive that change.
If you think about the ’80s, you’d have the boss coming out of recruitment interviews saying, “I love that person because that person reminds me of me.” Whereas when you think about that now, it’s the worst thing that could happen. We want a diverse range of people in our organisations. We know that diversity brings better collaboration, innovation and far better outcomes that solve the challenges our communities are facing.
There is still work to be done in terms of seeing more women in leadership roles in our industry. But I also think it’s important that we stop and celebrate the incredible women who are in prominent roles across our sector. It points to improvements and that a step change in our working culture is underway.
When you were starting your career did you have many role models?
If I look back to when I started my career in engineering, there just weren’t many role models that looked like me or had a background like me, so it was hard to relate to people in higher positions. As a leader, it’s been so important to try and be that role model to the next generation of leaders. It’s not a natural thing for me to put myself out there, but I don’t underestimate the importance of my responsibility. It’s important to be visible and lead by example.
We are starting to see more females in senior leadership, but not enough to accurately reflect society. What has helped you achieve what you have?
The expectation of the family unit has shifted but I think there is still more work to be done. I’ve got two girls and they’re growing up with me working full-time and my husband being the part-time parent and part-time worker. They are seeing a different example of what it means to have a career and a family.
I think it’s important to also mention ‘Imposter Syndrome’. It is a huge challenge that women face. It is the confidence gap that we experience because of our gender, our background, or our position in society. I have felt this, and I want people to know that it is ok to feel like this. As a leader I think it’s important we bring more awareness to this feeling and discuss it. Our people need to be supported to think the opportunities are indeed possible and thus help to overcome this feeling.
I think I’ve been able to achieve what I have with the help of mentors. I have always had several mentors at time who all contribute to my life differently.
Don’t be afraid to get different mentors during different times in your life. Our situations are changing all the time, so you need to be open to that change to continue to grow. I have had mentors internally within the business and externally. I’ve created networks and connections for myself across the whole profession. So, do women know how to do this? I think so, but we can get better at it. I really encourage women to write down three goals, they can be professional or personal and then identify a mentor who you think will be able to provide thoughts and advice on how you can reach those goals. It is also a great way to be held accountable for your choices and ensuring that the decisions you make help you towards achieving those goals.
You can be vulnerable and be a leader. But my advice is to seek the guidance and support you need and then go for it and don’t hold back!
If you’re a Diversity Agenda member with a great story to tell, please get in touch.