ADVICE: Understand and embrace engineering’s human factor – Trang Pham

Trang Pham, Civil Engineer at Aurecon and Chair of Women in Engineering Queensland at Engineers Australia, has had a varied career across retail, business, public service, and engineering in the private sector. She is passionate about representing and driving further diversity across STEM industries, particularly engineering, and recognises the challenges vary from organisation to organisation.

Engineering connects people – it’s not all stats and facts

Pham believes the engineering industry needs to make a greater effort to explain the societal and human impact of its work to invite and keep a more diverse workforce.

She explains, “People don’t understand it and think it’s very conceptual but it’s not. The stories we’re telling aren’t inclusive. We’re very analytical in how we describe our work. We say we’re building buildings, or designing roads, or building robots. This makes people think it’s purely technical and that engineering doesn’t require gender or diversity to be effective.

“But that’s wrong because the end users are humans. We need to talk about how the roads we’re building are connecting communities and providing access to health care and much-needed services, or how the robots we’re building are improving the quality of life for our ageing population.”

Being a woman in engineering was never a problem, until it was

Going to an all girls school, Pham remembers feeling empowered to study whatever she wanted, without any hesitation or restrictions based on her gender. At home, as the daughter of refugees from the Vietnam War, Pham also says engineering was a career she was encouraged to pursue by her parents because of its perceived stability.

By the time Pham started studying engineering at university, she started to realise that being a minority in terms of gender was going to be a part of her engineering career. She was often one of very few women in seminars and tutorials.

However, despite being a minority, Pham never felt the impact of a gender divide during her university years and says her diverse group of friends at this time ensured she was always welcomed and supported.

Once she joined the workforce, Pham’s experiences drastically changed.

In some work environments, she was part of truly diverse teams where everyone was from a unique background, culturally, religiously, or otherwise. She recalls having wonderful experiences because “you were a minority, but the majority was the minority.”

In other work environments, she “became an actual minority” and she saw significant shifts in how she was treated, viewed, and valued in the workplace.

At one stage, she had colleagues directly tell her she had only gotten a job because she was a woman and woman of colour – she ticked two diversity boxes for the company.

“It was so demeaning to my skills. I was so scared because of how I looked, I was actually standing out for once, and I felt so much more pressure to perform at a higher level than before,” she says.

Embracing a support network made me fearless

As well as her current role as Chair of Women in Engineering Queensland, Pham has been a Past Chair for Young Engineers Australia, and volunteers as a CSIRO STEM Professional in School partner. She attributes her ability to persevere past experiences of discrimination, while continuing to thrive in her career and contribute to the engineering community, to these support networks.

“Engineers Australia (EA) helped me maintain my voice within the workplace. It’s through Engineers Australia that I have developed my leadership and the role I play in the industry,” Pham says.

“It made me quite sure of myself in terms of what I had to say, what I had to contribute and that what I had to say was important. At times when I may have been scared of being seen or valued less in the workplace, through my experience with EA, I was able to take a step back and realise that I need to leverage my position and my voice to make sure I’m changing the industry for the better and for the people around me.”

Being empowered by her support network and with a drive to action change, Pham has been able to build allies and support network everywhere she goes, building her own resilience and ability to manage discrimination as it arises.

She encourages anyone experiencing discrimination in their workplace to “speak out”, but also recognises that this may not be possible for everyone. She says it’s important to assess whether the current situation is “taking your energy. If so, then you need to put that energy elsewhere that benefits you. That could be finding a job that supports you. That could be finding a support group of other women. That could be finding a hobby where you are supported and celebrated.”

She explains, “A lot of the time, people – not just women – get pigeonholed in a role and then their whole life revolves around that. For example, a lot of mums have that in any industries – people define them as a mum, not a professional, hard-working employee. It’s hard to say, ‘Ignore them’. But educating people that you are not just that person is really important, and developing that outside of work “

Today, Pham plays a key role in promoting diversity and inclusion at her current workplace, Aurecon, as well as highlighting for clients the ability to view engineering and business challenges through a human lens.

Relationships are everything in business

There were several times in her career when Pham felt she was a “failure”. She graduated several years after some of her peers due to needing to repeat some classes, and spent six months in retail management before using the skills from her business and engineering degrees in the corporate world.

However, over the years, Pham has realised that her perceived failures have led to some of her greatest strengths, and in the long-run, have enabled her to take leaps and bounds in her career that she otherwise may not have been able to achieve.

Her varied education across business and technical fields, combined with her diverse experience across multiple industries, combined with her strong work ethic and interest in understanding people has given Pham a matrix of skill-sets that are rare in engineering. In her words, it boils down to an ability to build relationships and connect on a human level.

She says, “If you can’t connect with your clients, you’re not going to bring work in and deliver the right solution. When you are building a relationship, you are trying to understand people’s stories, experiences and perspectives. Sometimes their issues aren’t engineering issues.

“Understanding that as well as the technical and commercial aspects is important, but understanding the person is the most important part. If you don’t get that, you’ll have slow growth in your career because you’re only skilled technically. If you build a relationship, people are asking for you and want you.”

About the expert

Trang Pham is a Civil Engineer at Aurecon within the Built Environment Unit, with previous experience in the IT and Infrastructure sectors. She is currently the Chair of Women in Engineering – Queensland and Immediate Past Chair for Young Engineers Australia – Queensland. Trang also volunteers as a CSIRO STEM Professional in School partner. Graduating from the University of Queensland (UQ) in 2014 with a Bachelor of Engineering (Civil) and Bachelor of Business Management (Marketing). Trang is currently involved with UQ’s Young Alumni Advisory Board and UQ’s Women in Engineering Alumni Ambassador Council.

Image description: Headshot from the shoulders up of a smiling woman with short, black curly hair, wearing a blue floral sleeveless top.


ADVICE: Just ask, just go for it – Madhu Bhaskaran

Unlike many women working in STEM in Australia, Madhu Bhaskaran, Professor and Co-Leader, Functional Materials and Microsystems Research Group at RMIT University, has not found entering or staying in the STEM industry challenging. She attributes this to her upbringing in India, and the environment and colleagues today at her workplace, RMIT University.

“The situation in India is very different to here,” Bhaskaran explains. “Women choose professions very differently in India. We tend to choose in terms of what is going to give us the most long-term financial stability and esteem.”

Consequently, in Bhaskaran’s experience, there are not as many hurdles for women wanting to join and continue their career in STEM-related industries in India, in comparison to Australia.

The challenge does exist, though, when women try to rise through the ranks, as there are “a lot of societal biases against women”. This is an issue all too familiar to Australian women in STEM.

Your surroundings matter

Bhaskaran says that she has been fortunate enough to have not experienced gender-based discrimination in her workplace due to her colleagues.

“In my department of engineering, I think there were 50 staff altogether, and maybe 5-10 women among them. I’ve been in meeting rooms where there were 20-25 people in the room, and I was the only woman in the room. But I’ve never felt I was treated differently due to being a woman or woman of colour, thanks to my colleagues,” she says.

But Bhaskaran knows this discrimination does exist in the industry more broadly because of the exposure she’s had to it in meetings with professionals outside her workplace.

She says, “I have been in national-level meetings and meetings with collaborators. There, I can see the difference sometimes in how I’ve been treated and how my opinions have been considered. I know the difference. I may brush it off, but I know the difference.”

What would he do?

As well as her leadership roles at RMIT University, Bhaskaran is also on the Board of Directors at Women in STEMM Australia, and is the Node Director, Chief Investigator, and Equity & Diversity Director at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Transformative Meta-Optical Systems (TMOS).

Bhaskaran’s achievements and leadership across the industry and in academia are undoubtedly impressive, and she does not take for granted the impact of her home environment on the successes she has made.

She explains, “I’ve realised my situation is quite unique. My confidence has grown gradually over the years as I have watched how people operate differently and get different results in a male dominated field. My husband and I co-lead the group [at RMIT] together. Decisions made around my career growth have been influenced by him to some extent.

“Sometimes when I hesitate to make a decision, send an email or put my hat in the ring for something, I tend to look at him and think, ‘What would he do in this situation? If he’s going to do it, what’s stopping me from doing it?’ So having that like for like comparison right in the household and in the workplace, it keeps it front of mind. I can see myself making decisions very consciously differently because I’m looking at it from that perspective.”

Just ask, just go for it

Due to her upbringing in India, Bhaskaran believes she has grown a thick skin and resilience which she has been able to use in the workplace. She says it’s important for women to speak up and ask, and not be held back by fears that everything they say will be recorded on file and held against them.

She says, “I learned quite early that more often we just don’t ask. When you don’t ask you don’t know what the answer is. If you don’t ask, in a sense, the answer is always no. So I learned in the initial stages of my career to let go of my reservations and ask a little more. And it doesn’t hurt as much when the answer is no. Unlike in other places, where people may hold things against you, that doesn’t happen as much here. Some people hold grudges, but you learn to deal with that.”

Bhaskaran continues to explain that diversity in the STEM fields is critical and can have significant impacts on both the industries themselves and the people those industries impact. In her experiences, the impact of true diversity goes beyond having women involved.

For example, when she’s been on leadership committees and had to make decisions that impact hundreds of PhD students, she has experienced first-hand the benefits of having people of different financial conditions, family environments, and research capabilities around the decision-making table so that different types of students’ needs were heard and actioned.

In her research, Bhaskaran’s work is often closely related to the development of medical devices. In the aged care sector as an example, she says it’s important to have people of different cultural backgrounds involved to ensure the medical devices suit the needs of different families. In India, she found people hesitant to put their elderly in aged care homes, in comparison to Australia where this is considered something normal to prepare for. Furthermore, in Singapore and China, cameras for monitoring people in aged care for their health and safety is considered normal, though would be frowned upon in Australia.

To ensure all of these nuances and cultural differences are understood and respected, Bhaskaran encourages more diverse voices to join, stay and rise in STEM fields.

“Just go for it,” she says.

“The biggest thing I’ve learned since coming here is there are not so many women in STEM. Not because they don’t want to be in STEM, but because they don’t know what STEM is. Especially, they don’t understand what the difference is between engineering versus science versus other fields, and how broad engineering truly is. We need to ensure people are truly educated about the choices they make. Once you’ve made that choice and truly understand why you’ve chosen a particular branch of engineering and you’ve chosen it for being passionate about it, you will stick to it.”

About the expert

Professor Madhu Bhaskaran co-leads the Functional Materials and Microsystems Research Group at RMIT University. Madhu is an electronics engineer and she has won numerous awards and fellowships for her research including 2017 Eureka Prize for Outstanding Early Career Researcher and was also named as Australia’s Most Innovative Engineers by Engineers Australia. In 2018, she won the Batterham Medal and the APEC Aspire Prize.  The discoveries made at micro/nano-scales by the research group are transformed into prototypes often in partnership with industry. Her work seeks to transform conventional hard electronics into soft and unbreakable products, thin enough to create electronic skin.  

Image description: Half-body headshot of a woman with long, black hair and brown skin, wearing a pink cardigan over a white blouse, and small gold earrings and a long necklace. She is smiling.

PEOPLE: “Education is a privilege and a STEM career is a huge step towards empowerment and equality” – Muneera Bano

Muneera Bano is a passionate advocate for women in STEM and is an active role model for the next generation via the various accolades and positions she holds, including a ‘Superstar of STEM’ for Science and Technology Australia, and the Go Girl, Go For IT 2020 Ambassador. In this interview, Muneera shares her views on driving diversity and inclusion in STEM fields.

  • What are the big things companies are getting right and wrong about how they position IT careers to the public?

My research focuses on the socio-technical domain of software engineering and I work at the intersection of human and computers in order to study the impact of technology on society. The amazing thing to see in the field of IT from my perspective is how current technological innovations have transformed society in ways so that we cannot imagine life without an aspect of IT. Especially during the pandemic of covid19, IT infrastructure became the critical backbone of society to keep most jobs on track. IT jobs and careers will become even more critical to the core of the post-pandemic society as we will see more transition to online job markets.  

One of my research interests in the field of IT is the inclusion and diversity of under-privileged and under-represented groups of people who do not receive the benefits of IT initiatives. While we look towards an advanced technological future with AI at the back, the digital divide could increase substantially. More initiatives are needed now than ever before to ensure that the future belongs to all, regardless of their gender, race, identity and socio-economic status.

  • How does this impact who applies for IT and technology roles?

The innovations in current IT infrastructure and platforms have enabled a lot of opportunities for entrepreneurship and have created new jobs. With e-learning and distant educational initiatives, anyone can upskill their capabilities to meet the new job requirements. The digital divide and the data gaps make it more competitive to access equal opportunities to new initiatives for those from under-privileged and under-represented backgrounds.

  • Why did you decide to recently become a Go Girl, Go for IT ambassador? 

Being a woman, an immigrant in Australia coming from Pashtun ethnicity, and in the male-dominated field of IT and Engineering, I have experienced every facet of diversity, and that makes me personally a passionate advocate. The aims of ‘Go Girl, Go for IT’ align with my mission of gender equality in IT careers.

In the future, with increased reliance on IT infrastructure, we have to ensure the design and outcomes of IT solutions meet the requirements of everyone. Innovation should be driven to improve the quality of life for all. For that, we have to impress upon the younger generation to play their part, especially girls and under-represented groups, to step forward and move into IT careers, so that we can create a fair and inclusive future together.

  • STEM careers tend to have stigmas such as being difficult, complex, boring, or only for high-achievers. How has or hasn’t this been your experience?

At the core of all STEM subjects are elements of intellectual curiosity, a quest for inquiry and creativity. Once we are able to invoke these factors in young minds, personal pursuit and motivation make STEM subjects easy and enjoyable. In my experience, personal motivation was the biggest driving force behind me selecting IT and Engineering fields.

Yes, STEM subjects and careers have a stereotype with only the high-achievers pursuing them. However, STEM subjects should be taught with the pedagogical design of accepting mistakes and making students learn from their failures rather than penalising them. This might help in not just academic and professional pursuits, but also change perspectives on life. 

  • What’s your message to young women who are steering away from STEM careers because they feel they don’t have high enough grades or school marks?

I come from an ethnic background in Pakistan where in my mother’s generation of girls were not allowed access to education. Given the equal opportunity to education, I decided to prove I can outperform in a male-dominated field. I grew up without any female role models and had to find my way.

Next time you go to school, think of all those who have been denied of this opportunity and have to fight for their right of education. I have a clear conviction in my life that education is a privilege and a STEM career is a huge step towards empowerment and equality. If you wish to make your mark in digital history, now is the time to make a choice.

About the expert

A passionate advocate for women in STEM, Muneera Bano was announced as the ‘Most Influential Asian-Australian Under 40’ in 2019. A ‘Superstar of STEM’ and member of ‘Equity, Diversity and Inclusion’ committee for Science and Technology Australia, Muneera has a strong commitment to smash society’s gender and cultural assumptions about scientists. She is the Go Girl, Go For IT 2020 Ambassador with the aim to inspire the next generation of girls in STEM careers.

During her research career, Muneera has also received prestigious recognition for her work, including being named as a finalist for Google Australia’s Anita Borg Award for Women in Computer Science, Asia-Pacific 2015. She was also the recipient of Schlumberger’s Faculty For The Future (FFTF) Award for Women in STEM (2014 and 2015) and was given the ‘Distinguished Research Paper Award’ at International Requirements Engineering Conference held in August 2018. As the winner of Under 40: Most Influential Asian-Australians Award, Muneera was offered Dr John Yu Fellowship for Cultural Diversity and Leadership at Sydney University in November 2019 .

ADVICE: Seek out a mentor, be a mentor, and be visible

Chahida Bakkour has had an extensive career in technology, engineering and aviation. Today, as well as being an A/g Service Design and Alignment Manager for Airservices Australia, she believes strongly in the importance of encouraging women to join and empowering women to thrive in male-dominated industries.

In this interview, she shares her advice and experiences regarding imposter syndrome, confidence and leadership.

  • In your experience, what are the biggest challenges facing female leaders in male-dominated industries? 

Self confidence, fear of failure and the lack of role models and mentors.

  • How have you overcome these challenges throughout your career, and what’s your advice to others experiencing or foreseeing these challenges?

I tackle things head on, overcoming lack of self-confidence and fear of failure are no exceptions.  I set goals and mantras like in 2019 “getting out of my comfort zone”. I take ownership of my development and accomplishments instead of waiting to be asked. It’s a journey, I am happy to now realise getting out of my comfort zone has become the norm me. For me, showing up and being visible was out of my comfort zone but was something I needed to overcome for the purpose of being a visible role model.

I surround myself with like-minded inspiring women who support my goals and we work closely to uplift each other. Last year, I attended a truly inspiring week-long leadership summit which included leadership coaching sessions, networking events and a great line up of inspiring speakers who all were great role models. I walked away from the summit feeling motivated, inspired and connected to a greater network of other like-minded leaders and role models. 

My advice is to seek out mentors, be a mentor and be visible so that others can see you as a role model, then inspire others to do the same. Take ownership of your leadership, attend leadership forums and build your network.

  • In your view, what is the biggest thing driving the local and global shortage of women working in tech? What is the low-hanging fruit for each of governments, corporates, and individuals to improve the ratio?

Some of the key factors that contribute to the local and global shortage of women in tech roles include the belief that these types of roles are not suitable for females (gender stereotypes), male dominated culture and a lack of role models. We are dealing with a mindset and culture that dates back a long time.

We need to be educating the younger generations about the broad range of roles and pathways that are available and suitable for women seeking a career in tech. The aim should be to embed a culture where women in tech roles are seen as the norm across various layers of society.

Governments play a key role in ensuring school curriculums starting from prep to year 12 target these key areas. We need to start planting seeds from a very early age. The result would be an increase to the number of females that are attracted to and complete further studies in this field.

Corporations that haven’t already done so, need to review recruitment processes, position descriptions and job advertisements. In many instances position descriptions and job advertisements are written in a way that deters women from applying. Diversity strategies are needed to support the organisation in retaining staff and creating an inclusive culture, including educating on how we manage unconscious bias.  

We, as individuals, all play a role in challenging the status quo, promoting, supporting and encouraging more women in gaining and retaining roles within tech.

  • A lot of people feel pressured to behave a certain way to be seen as a ‘leader’, which can often involve acting against their gut instincts. In your view, when is this type of change necessary, and how should people experiencing this feeling address it in the moment?

Start by reflecting on your leadership style, purpose and values. It takes self awareness, confidence and courage to stay true to your values when being pressured by others to behave in a certain way that goes against your gut instinct. Believe in yourself and trust your gut instinct.

  • Have you ever experienced imposter syndrome? If so, could you share some examples?

Yes, I have definitely experienced imposter syndrome and to my surprise so have many others. I will never forget the day I discovered the imposter syndrome. I was flipping through an RACV magazine (of all places) and stumbled across an article about the imposter syndrome. I was so relieved to know that my negative thoughts, thinking I wasn’t good enough, always working towards perfection, fear of failure and continuously focusing on things that I lacked was a result of the imposter syndrome.

  • These days, do you ever experience imposter syndrome or self doubt? If so, how do you overcome that and what’s your advice to others going through this?

Yes, I occasionally still experience it but I shut down the negative thoughts pretty quickly. As mentioned earlier, 2019 was my year of “getting out of my comfort zone”. I no longer hold myself back from trying new things or seeking new opportunities due to a fear of failure. I shifted my mindset to one that sees failure as an opportunity to learn and develop from the experience. I also now keep a list of my achievements and accomplishments, no matter how big or small they are. I use the list when I need to shift my mindset from one that is focusing on things that I lack instead of the great things I do well but do unconsciously.  

My advice would be to start by educating yourself on imposter syndrome, there are some great resources available online. The first book I read was “The secret thoughts of successful women: Why capable people suffer from the imposter syndrome and how they thrive in spite of it.” By Valerie Young ED.D

If you don’t have a mentor, seek one out to support you in working through self doubt and imposter syndrome.

  • ‘Anyone can be a mentor.’ – Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Why?

Agree, anyone can be mentor. All it takes is someone who has a good attitude, and is a positive role model who is willing to share relevant knowledge, experiences and advice to assist others in developing. Many people already have an informal mentoring relationship and may not realise that they are already mentoring. Whether you have a formal or informal mentoring relationship the ability to actively listen and focus on the needs of the mentee is key.

The ability to support and guide a mentee in setting career and development goals is extremely rewarding.

About the expert

Chahida dedicated part of her adulthood to raising her two boys. Once they were in primary school, there was passion to do more and be a positive role model for her family, especial her sons. Through process of discovery, Chahida found passion and fascination with technology. With the support of her family, Chahida invested in returning to studies with focus on Information Technology completing Bachelor of Business in Computer Systems Management. 

Chahida currently works for Airservices Australia, Australia’s Air Navigation Service Provider (ANSP), who safely manage 11% of the world airspace. With over 10 years of experience working in the Air Traffic Management (ATM) systems domain in both technical and leadership roles, she has led an extremely diverse team of software and systems engineers that provide frontline engineering support to real time, large-scale ATM systems. Like most leadership roles, she was responsible for management of a works program, resource management, project delivery support and planning, recruitment, mentoring/coaching and performance management.

Seeking to challenge herself and live to her 2019 mantra of pushing herself out of her comfort zone, Chahida accepted secondment into a senior leadership role; Service Design and Alignment Manager, an extremely challenging role that she thoroughly enjoys. People who know Chahida would describe her as a great role model, breaking down several stereotypes by being a female Muslim leader, from a non-English speaking background, in what is traditionally a male dominated field. Chahida practices what she preaches, mentoring in The Future Through Collaboration (TFTC) program, a formal cross defence industry mentoring program for female engineers and project managers. She is also a Women in Aviation International and Australian charter.

Outside Air Traffic Management, Chahida is on the board at Migrant Resource Centre North West Region (MRC NWR), a non-for-profit, community based organisation, in the role of Assistant Treasurer. Her contributions and leading example were acknowledged in 2019’s Women Acknowledging Women’s Award – STEM Contribution Achievement