This month, Mimi O’Callaghan from the Diversity Agenda speaks to Rochelle Kirby – an engineer at WSP and in her career so far, has many impressive achievements under her belt.
We discuss Rochelle’s university experience and if she feels the profession is progressing, how to compassionately call people out for un intended gender-exclusive language, and how important the next generation is to achieving a diverse and inclusive profession.
Let’s start at the beginning. So why engineering?
At school, I liked physics and maths, which is the general answer. But also, my Dad’s an engineer and while I was growing up, he’d always be like, “Oh, Rochelle, you’d make a great engineer.” He was encouraging, so I was lucky to have that in my life. I know a lot of people don’t have that encouragement from role models, or just don’t get exposed to the possibility of engineering.
When I started doing NCEA at school, I knew I wanted to do engineering. Then luckily when I got into it at university, I was like, “Ooh, okay, this feels right.”
Yes, because you’re a Rocket Challenge Ambassador, so you’re trying to bring encouragement to school kids as well, aren’t you?
Yeah, a colleague of mine and I did the Rocket Challenge when I first started working in 2019. We really enjoyed it, and since then I’ve been very involved in the Wonder Project. At work, a couple of us have been trying to encourage people to participate in the Wonder Project, Rocket Challenge, and STEM Talks.
At WSP we’re able to allocate eight hours a year to volunteer with the Wonder Project, so it’s paid time. WSP is really focused on diversity and showing young kids from different backgrounds the awesome prospects that come from pursuing engineering and other STEM subjects – therefore participating in Wonder Project activities will help greatly towards achieving this goal.
WSP is very much leading in the diversity and inclusion space. Being in a firm like that, has it made you value diversity and see how and why it’s so important?
Absolutely. What I value a lot about WSP is that I feel like I can be myself completely – and that’s special. After working for a couple of years I realise how important that is. I can’t speak for everyone, but I do get the impression that a lot of people feel the same.
And it’s great to be a part of a company where diversity and inclusion are a major focus. I know that comes from the leadership team. I mean, everyone is like that – but the leadership team truly enforce it.
That top-down approach?
Yeah, it’s really effective. We have such a diverse team. There are people from all over the world and everyone gets along well because we all respect each other and what we individually bring.
Do you find with that diversity of thought that your project outcomes are better because you just have so many different perspectives?
For sure. People who come from overseas have different ways of doing things, different regulations, different standards, and they feel comfortable expressing those ideas and concepts. I believe our projects end up being better quality for our clients because of it.
So, in your young career, your achievements so far are very impressive… You’re the 2021 joint winner of the Rising Star award from the National Association of Women in Construction, you were a finalist for the New Zealand Green Building Council Future Thinker of the Year award in 2020, and then one of eight global finalists for the Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers and American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers Graduate of the Year award in 2020.
Can you tell us a little bit more about the awards and how you came to get recognition for these great achievements?
In 2019, I went to South Korea with The Association of Korean Woman Scientists and Engineers (KWSE). Engineering New Zealand selected me and another lady, Kate, to go. We were representing New Zealand at this conference – and that got me inspired.
I was also the leader for this group called Pathways at the WSP office in Auckland. There’s a committee of 12 that I led in 2020, and we organized events for over 180 young professionals – all focused on what people need to develop their personal and professional skills. I think the committee focused a lot on ways to help make people’s working lives better and well-rounded.
Being nominated for the Green Building Council Future Thinker of the Year award was a great experience for me. Green Buildings and that whole space is interesting and should be a big focus (currently New Zealand isn’t focusing on it enough). It’s great to see young people enthusiastic about it, we have a voice so we should use it.
One thing I’ve always done is look for opportunities in everything. It doesn’t necessarily have to be something that has an immediate impact, but where you can open doors and provide opportunities for other people to succeed, you should do so. I always try and do things that push me outside of my comfort zone, because if we’re outside of our comfort zone, then we grow. And I think that is one of the most important lessons I’ve learned over the last few years.
I’ll go to events and meet people, network, and form connections. A lot of things that happen are through word of mouth. Once you get involved, meeting people and organising events gets easier and you can become a connector. So, just being determined has helped me – and if I say I’m going to do something, I’ll do it. Being reliable is important.
That’s great advice – you must get the question “how did you achieve this?” a lot. And pushing yourself is how you stand out.
Every opportunity in life leads to another. I also think it’s important to try and find something that motivates you because otherwise, you’re not going to do it.
What’s your perspective as a young engineer and having recently gone through university? Do you feel the profession is progressing in terms of gender balance? Are more women coming through university and are there more women in the office?
These days there are a lot more women doing engineering than in the last 30 years. That’s obvious with the workforce currently. Whilst there are currently more men than women in the industry, the balance is changing. WSP is very pro gender diversity and actively supports women in engineering, which is great.
I hope that these days women feel a lot more empowered to speak up for themselves and feel their voices are valued.
From my personal experience, I have sometimes felt like I didn’t belong. That was more at university, but also, I think students at university over the last few years in particular have been exposed to a lot more diversity of thought. So, they’re open-minded, respect women and value them as equals. I can’t speak for everyone, but I think there’s an obvious trend that it’s getting a lot better.
Going into a profession that’s male dominated, have you experienced challenges? Or have you generally had quite a positive experience so far?
At University and through my various engineering roles I have observed and been subjected to inappropriate behaviour. However, I’m quite a strong-willed person, so I’m able to be an advocate and stand up and speak out against these issues. There are so many strong women coming through – and women currently in the industry, who have already faced a lot of challenges throughout their careers.
And that’s where getting into schools with initiatives like the Wonder Project comes in – it starts by educating younger people about diversity, and that STEM subjects are great options for everybody.
Do you have suggestions on what more leaders or colleagues can do to make engineering more attractive and inclusive to all people?
That’s something we talk about a lot at work and with Pathways and the Wonder Project. I personally have put a lot of focus on going into schools and teaching the younger generation. I don’t think saying something like “Oh wow, you’re a girl and you do engineering. That’s so special.” is relevant anymore. I don’t think it should be celebrated as special. Engineering is for everyone. Getting rid of those gendered phrases and opinions is important.
On the topic of gender terms and roles, when I started work at a previous company I heard someone during training say “When you go to a site, make sure that you sign in with the site manager, he’ll be able to help you out.” I asked, “Oh, are all site managers men?”
And of course, that wasn’t the case as many site managers are women. I’m not saying, “Oh, you’re mansplaining, or I want special treatment.” Because people don’t even realise what they’re doing. I’m trying to let them know that what they said made me feel excluded.
I’ve explained this to people and they’re thankful to be made aware of the impact their words have because I’m sure they don’t want to make people feel uncomfortable.
I’m fortunate to have good relationships with people at work where I can sit down and have these discussions. They respect the fact that “Okay, you have a point and I’m going to take that on board.”
Oh, for sure! With the work we’re doing, we don’t want there to be no pākehā men in the profession – everyone is important. We’re just trying to bring in more diversity so we’re reflective of society – because society is who engineers are building solutions for. We need more Māori, Pasifika, rainbow communities. I could go on…
In my opinion, a massive failure would be to have children of this generation growing up not knowing that engineering’s even a possibility for them. It’s a big problem – kids get to the end of their education and think, “I want to be an engineer. But, I can’t because I didn’t take the right subjects.”
With Māori and Pasifika people, having a relatively small representation in the current engineering workforce there are fewer opportunities for that transfer of knowledge from parent to the child about engineering and STEM as career options.
That’s why it’s great going into schools and seeing Māori and Pasifika engineers and STEM professionals inspire these kids, who think, “Oh my gosh. This is actually really cool. Here’s someone like me. This is something that I could get into. I want to be like that when I grow up.”
We’re both in our mid-twenties – so we weren’t at school that long ago. And it’s funny because even for me, at school I didn’t know that much about what engineering was, or that it was a viable career option!
And so many things we see and use every day are engineered, so it’s kind of crazy that some school students aren’t exposed to engineering as a career, right? It’s rare for a kid with no engineering role models or exposure to the profession to be sure at 15 that they want to do engineering… but that’s the age where you need to know, to take the correct prerequisite subjects.
Schools have a really big role to play, don’t they?
If you’re a Diversity Agenda member with a great story to tell, please get in touch.