This month, we speak with Joyana Finch – the first Pasifika woman to graduate from the University of Auckland with a degree in mechatronic engineering. Joyana discusses the beauty of growing up in the islands, her experience in the workforce, how we can encourage more Pasifika to aim for leadership positions, and how she’s inspiring the next generation to take an interest in STEM.
Let’s start at the beginning. Can you tell us a bit about your background?
I grew up in Rarotonga, which is the capital of the Cook Islands. I did all my schooling there… from kindergarten to Level 3 NCEA. We didn’t have a local university, so it was very normal to come over to Auckland for tertiary studies.
It’s funny – people have this idea of growing up in the Islands as being disadvantaged or having a lack of resources. But I try and tell as many people as I can, that’s not the case. Well, at least not in my experience. Growing up here, there was a lot of opportunities to travel overseas because a lot of people belong to dance groups. So, from a young age, one becomes used to travelling, used to presenting in front of crowds of people.
Extracurricular activities were through the also roof – at one point, I had two activities every day, either tennis, soccer, karate, fashion modelling, netball, piano lessons, French lessons. And I felt it was normal to end up with an all-rounded education.
All youth were encouraged to do tertiary studies afterwards. And because really liked math and science. I’ve always been a bit nosy you see – I like to know how things work. Even more, how to build things, and how to create solutions. So to me, engineering as a career choice just seemed like a no brainer.
You mentioned engineering always seemed like a no brainer. Why specifically was mechatronic engineering of interest to you?
I had no idea mechatronics existed until I began the degree. I just knew I wanted to do engineering. But after your first year of study, you’re asked to pick a specialisation.
Mechatronics is a mixture of software, electrical and mechanical engineering. So, of all the disciplines, it had the largest scope of works. And that’s basically why I chose it – because I knew it would allow me the most flexibility in my career. Also, I knew down the track, if I wanted to build my own engineering solutions, I would know how to do all the facets of it.
Because of this overarching view of how all the disciplines fit together, mechatronic engineers often progress to managerial roles.
You were the first Pasifika woman to graduate from the University of Auckland with a Mechatronic Engineering degree. What were your feelings toward this? Were you proud, or surprised it hadn’t happened before?
It was definitely positive feelings from me, but not a surprise. I spent four years observing the obvious lack of Polynesian faces in the degree. So I kind of knew it was coming. And it’s a wonderful flag to wave around – because it has gifted me a platform to promote a tech career to Pasifika people. And now I feel like this person waving the flag saying, “Hey, we can do this over here too. Just in case you hadn’t considered a career in engineering, tech.”
Which I believe is an important message to get out because I don’t think tech is outside of Pasifika people’s capabilities at all – they’re completely capable. It simply just hasn’t been on their radar.
It sounds like your comfortable being a role model, but did you have any that inspired you to go into engineering?
Unfortunately, no, I didn’t have any tech role models. I find I need my role models to be people I know. Real people, real proof, where I can watch them through their struggles and trials.
So, growing up (sorry for the cheesiness) my role models were my parents. They’ve been self-employed my entire life and I’ve seen them start and finish so many businesses, take risks, face challenges and overcome them. As kids, we were always involved in the background, whether it was packing up, setting up, doing stock take or being the front person. Our parents included us, kids, along for the journey.
They taught me, first of all – don’t be afraid of risks, or new things. If you think you want to go in that direction, it doesn’t matter it’s new or unknown – just go for it. Secondly – keep pushing till it’s finished. A bit of endurance is always required.
Where are you currently working?
I’m with Daifuku Oceania. Daifuku is an automation giant that’s based in Japan, Daifuku Oceania being their branch based in New Zealand. We do sortation systems for the aviation and logistics industries.
When I say the aviation industry, I’m talking about airports. You know when you check your bag in and your bag goes on the check-in conveyor and disappears around the back? We build the whole conveyor belt system, as well as all of the smarts behind it, to sort the bags to the right plane and so on. And that’s just airports – we do the same thing for freight – For the likes of New Zealand Post, Toll, DHL, FedEx, we do all the automated sorting of parcels. They’re wonderful engineering systems to observe.
And we don’t just do the machines, we do the whole shebang. We design the power and control networks. We build the physical machines in Malaysia, assemble, program and commission them, and then implement the high-level control software. That software is developed in house and is what airport operators use to assign a flight to a certain carousel. We also do all of their reporting using data acquired by our software.
A lot is going on in the company – I’m very lucky. I was employed by them early on in my career and there was a lot of space to grow in the company.
Since the birth of my second child, I’ve recently stepped down from High-Level Controls Lead. I’m now a Senior SCADA and Emulation Engineer at Daifuku Oceania. I’m also trying my hand in the world of governance as I’ve just joined a crown entity board, the ‘Engineering Associates Registration Board’.
You mentioned before that during your degree, there weren’t many other brown faces. Now you’re working in the engineering profession, which is very male and Pākehā. Being a young Pasifika woman, have you encountered challenges in either environment?
I like this question; I get asked a lot. My experience has only been wonderful – and I think that’s an answer contrary to what people expect. This is why it’s so important to me to share my response. The message I often hear today is “You’re a woman in a man’s world. They’re holding you back from opportunities. Or they must be excluding you from things.”
In my experience, that couldn’t be further from the truth. I’ve only ever had male managers and employees and they have been, not just accepting or respectful, but encouraging. Encouraging me to push the boundaries. Whenever I progressed to a role with more responsibility, they’d congratulate me and be genuinely happy.
Yes, there always was an element of surprise whenever I stepped into a room of new engineers, or a new workgroup – but I never held that surprise against them because it WAS unusual. It was unusual to see a young brown female face in the industry. But I was quietly confident that my work would speak for itself, and they eventually picked up on that.
I think that’s the message that we need to push more to our young career women – “You shouldn’t expect kudos and opportunities because you’re a woman. You should be respected because of your work.”
I think that’s the key difference in the ‘Woman in a Man’s World’ message that needs to be changed. It’s a two-way street. Yes, pursue respect and opportunities, but we need to respect the men as well and the fact that this may be new for them too. Ultimately, trust that your work will speak for itself.
That’s great, because as you said, some women have had contrary experiences, where they do feel like an outcast – but that’s not always the case, and it can put other women off from entering the profession. By sharing your positive experience, it’s motivating for younger women in the sense that it’s not always scary and perhaps attitudes are changing.
Yeah, it is. It’s important to put the other perspectives out there because it’s part of our surrounding narrative. I think back to a couple of times in my career where I was properly reprimanded for mishandling a couple of situations within my role, and looking back, I could see how someone could spin those events as my manager, or my boss being sexist or racist because they were picking on the young, Pacifica, female in the group. Whereas my view of those experiences is completely different. I valued that they treated me just like any other manager. To them, I was an equal and I wasn’t let off easy because I was a woman. And so there’s a small example of how there are more than one ways to look at things. In today’s professional environment, I observe it’s too easy to make men the enemy.
In the workplace, I believe men and women are both guilty of having egos; miscommunications; being too competitive; overreacting; underperforming etc. These are all human things. So while we women, listen to the current narrative of how we need to ‘win’ against men in the workplace, please consider that men too are trying to navigate a way through this environment and it may take something as simple as a conversation to bridge the gap for you both. Though men and women are indeed different, that’s not a bad thing at all. If anything, I believe those differences contribute to a work environment being all the more enjoyable and productive… If we allow it.
Humility. Respect and Communication are key.
What’s your advice to Pasifika engineers who have felt like an outcast, to help them stay and grow in their career, and progress into leadership positions?
Another good question. To answer that, I think we need to look at our Pacific culture. Most Polynesian cultures are founded on a hierarchal structure and are inheritance based. So, leaders are usually come from a bloodline and are born into the roles. The role is not something they can work up to. And there’s a lot of respect for that, which is great, but when we’re translated into a western professional environment, we may be taking that mentality with us.
This new way of thinking needs to be encouraged to our Pasifika people, that it’s normal to progress past your station – and you should do it! Simple exercises, like asking “What’s your five-year plan? Do you enjoy what you’re doing? Do you want to do more?” enforce the notion that a career path has a trajectory.
Things as simple as asking these questions can help Pasifika people realise it’s normal to progress forward. I was lucky enough that I’ve always been asked those kinds of questions. It was ingrained within me from an early age that I should always aim higher than what was comfortable. But for a lot of other Pacific people, that’s a very alien way of thinking. And worse than alien, it can feel wrong. It can feel disrespectful to cross that boundary, stepping out of your lane, because that’s the traditional mentality.
Pacific cultures are collectivist – one of the great things I love about being Pacific. And we can use that trait to encourage our people into leadership roles. We can point out that by assuming leadership roles in the workplace, they will be able to look after their colleagues. They will have more control in looking after the work-family, which resonates with our cultural values.
From an organisation standpoint, what can firms do that can make their work environments more inclusive?
Besides having food available? Because us Pasifika people love our food ha!
It’s been at the forefront of my mind for the last few years because I’ve become a mum. If businesses could make it normal to have creches in the building, then they could tap into the mum workforce. Every working mum I know works like a machine because they’re used to having no time for themselves and they need to get stuff done. They’re very, very efficient.
Being a tech mum myself, I’m one of the lucky ones – I’ve got an employer who allows me to work remotely with flexible hours. But this isn’t the case for most tech mums. So, they end up falling out of their career and staying at home to look after the kids when they could be a very valuable resource for the company. Including creches within business environments would allow businesses to capitalize on the efficiency and productivity of mums while giving opportunity for mums to continue their career growth and income. It’s a win-win if you ask me.
You’ve recently written a children’s book, ‘Buzz the Electron’. Tell us a little bit about the book and what inspired you to write this?
It’s no surprise becoming a mum made me write the book. My husband is also a mechatronics engineer. When we became parents we wanted our kids to enjoy the world we enjoy, or at least know what we’re talking about at the dinner table.
I started looking for science baby books. My daughter was barely one, and I was reading the usual stuff to her. You know… farm animal books and colour books. I thought, “Well, there’s got to be science books out there too.” And there were lots. A really good selection, but she wasn’t very interested in them. And I thought “What’s the difference?” So, I sat her on my lap and made up my own story.
There’s a character called Buzz the Electron who ran through the light switches and up the walls, through the wires and through the light bulbs – and that’s how the light bulb switches on. Then he runs back down the wires and through the kettle, and that’s why the kettle’s boiling. Then he gets so tired, he needs to go back to the battery for more energy. She got it straight away.
Seeing her excitement made me think, “Well there’s got to be other tech parents out there that are probably feeling the same. A children’s science book with a little bit more imagination and fun in it.”
Since its release, Buzz has become a lot more than that. At first, it was just something science-y that I could read my kid and for her to be interested in, but now it’s taken off in the Pacific community and people who aren’t interested in tech at all. And I thought, “Oh, this is actually a big hole in our education system.”
The science books were too science-y. I wanted to make one that took the pressure off and made science topics more normal for everyone. You’re teaching your kids about the world, or things that aren’t in this world, like unicorns, dragons, mermaids. So why not teach them about an electron, and the concept of voltage and a battery?
I’m halfway through my second book. The next one’s going to be about ‘Violet the Photon’, who introduces the concept of light and rainbows. It’s grown into much more of a passion project as people want it in their schools – it’s become something quite important to me.
What advice would you give to young Pasifika thinking about a career in engineering?
If they’re thinking about it, it means they probably already like the math and science subjects, in which case just do it. And with Auckland University, the enrolment process is laid out for you.
There are all sorts of grants and scholarships available for Pasifika people. You just have to show up to the lectures and do your homework. There are also so many support groups you can tap into, and you’re surrounded by people from all over the world, the same age, wanting to do the same thing. If you have an inkling of desire to do it, go for it – nothing is holding you back.
If you’re a Diversity Agenda member with a great story to tell, please get in touch.