it’s that connection to the impact of engineering from the technology to the impact that it has on a person’s life
Engineer Marlene admires: John Monash
he had a great spirit of service, which I admired
About Dr Marlene Kanga AM
Dr Marlene Kanga AM – Chemical Engineer
Marlene is a chemical engineer who worked in the area of process safety and risk engineering in the oil and gas industry across Australia and New Zealand.
She holds a Bachelor of Technology in Chemical Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai (IITB – India).
She has a Master of Science in Chemical Engineering from Imperial College, the University of London and a PhD in Business Administration from Macquarie University in Sydney
Marlene is a:
Member of the Order of Australia in recognition of her leadership of the engineering profession
She was listed among the Top 100 Women of Influence in Australia and the Top 100 Engineers in Australia
In 2014, she was the Federation of Engineers in Asia and the Pacific Professional Engineer of the Year, the first woman to win this award
This is a “close” copy of the words that were spoken during the Podcast, Season 2 Episode 15
It is not 100% accurate.
The guest was Dr Marlene Kanga AM
Mel De Gioia 0:24
Welcome to season two, Episode 15 of engineering heroes, a podcast that presents the incredible engineers that are shaping our society and battling out challenging issues. My name is Mel, my co host and our podcasts resident engineer speaking to us from the trenches is Dom. This is the third episode in our World Engineering Convention mini-series. The convention is set to unite the global engineering community to identify sustainable development challenges, take action and commit to change. We’re hoping this little mini series is helping you get ready for the event and perhaps give you a taste of what to expect.
Our guest tonight is a chemical engineer who worked in the area of process safety and risk engineering. She is currently the President of the World Federation of Engineering Organisations, the peak body for engineering institutions internationally. She was instrumental in bringing the World Engineering Convention to Melbourne Australia this year as well as the key advocate for World Engineers Day.
Our guest is amongst the prestigeous group of people to have received the Order of Australia which was presented to her in recognition of her leadership of the engineering profession.
Tonight we are very honoured to welcome Dr Marlene Kanga on our podcast.
Mel De Gioia 1:13
Marlene grew up in Goa, which became part of India in the 1960s. She is an only child and grew up having a very close relationship to her father, who was one of India’s first engineers. He sounds like really amazing man. He was responsible for building the infrastructure throughout India. It is honestly no wonder Marlene has achieved so much in her engineering career. But it hasn’t been easy. Not once while growing up did her father say that girls couldn’t do engineering. Not once. But when she got to university and again when she came to Australia to progress her engineering career Marlene realised the world she expected wasn’t yet ready for her. And how could it be when her father was so open with her in sharing his love for engineering, mathematics and science.
And he also took me around when he was in involved in various projects to show me the work that he did. He was very proud of it. And he just loved showing me and he did some amazing things like bringing electricity to the whole of the west coast of India and putting in electricity into major airports, I come from the state of Goa, it became a part of India in the 60s. So until that time, Goa was bypassed, we had no utilities we had no electricity, very lip few phone lines and so on. And so my father actually brought electricity to Goa, he was very key. When they came to the village and they asked about the demand the villagers had no idea they had one oil lamp which they carried to every room. So they said we want one bulb. My father called the meeting and said, You know set to them actually will have a light and every room and he turn on the switch. For them, it was beyond their comprehension. It was before television and so on. But they had such great respect for him that they said, All right, if you say so will. And so we brought electricity came to the village, we didn’t get bypassed, I saw the impact on the lives of people, you know, these are ordinary folk, simple people with simple lives, and yet they have the same aspirations that we all have. And for them, there was, you know, 30 years ago, there was no way they could even dream of those aspirations. And now because of engineering, it’s all possible for them, and their children, you know, working to buy and take flights. And, you know, it’s just an incredible transformation.
And to be right on the front line of it and seeing it and involved in it would have been a great learning experience for you.
Yeah, and I just saw I just love engineering in terms of its impact. And what it does for people, I think that’s very important. And I think as engineers, we don’t talk about that enough. We sort of engineers tend to put their heads down, just get on with it, you know, with and we love the numbers and the solutions and so on. But I think it’s very important to talk about the impact, because that impact then gets you involved with engaging with policy makers and government and and the politicians and so on, in an informed way and say, Look, this is important because because you understand the technologies, and I think that we have so much knowledge that we don’t communicate enough to the broader community and the impact that it has.
Absolutely. So what was the first project you worked on as an engineer?
So I, well, I worked in London in the design of chemical plants soon after I graduated from Imperial College in London. When I came to Australia, I had great difficulty getting a job. First of all, I was a migrant. And secondly, I was a woman engineer. And most people hadn’t seen a woman. I didn’t even know that women engineers existed. I was applying for jobs advertised on the men and boys. So when so and when I call people up, and these are big companies that said, are uou somebody’s sister, are you somebody’s secretary, and I said, No, I’m applying for myself. And they said, Oh, we didn’t know a woman could be an engineer. We never heard such a thing. And the anti discrimination laws have come through a few years previously, so I even rang them up, I was so desperate, and I said, Look, what should I do? And they said, yes, you know, they shouldn’t be advertising under men and boys, but we’re not taking a big stick to them at this stage because it’s early days. So just be patient and we don’t think you should start your career in Australia by making a complaint. So be patient. So eventually, I got job in a very lowly position, sizing pumps and valves for a little company in Sydney. And the reason I got the job I think is because this guy had got a letter from the anti discrimination board. So when I turned up, he thought I better hire that will cancel any impact of them investigating. He paid me half what he paid his secretary. And I was the only engineer besides him and there were three or four sales guys who sold the pumps and valves. Very quickly, within a couple of weeks, I was able to do the work that the boss was doing because there’s very little engineering in there. I stuck it out and I applied to every chemical company in the Yellow Pages. 300 letters. At that time, we didn’t have PC so I typed on a little electric typewriter, and eventually after a year I got a job with ESSO. I was the second female engineer they’d ever hired and the first chemical engineer, I had specialised in process safety at Imperial College. It was soon after the big Flixborough disaster, big explosion in 74. So they brought in new regulations. So this was very new in the world and been some big chemical disasters in Italy as well. And the chemical industry were starting to look at how to manage hazardous industry safely. But when I came to Australia, this was a field that wasn’t even taught in the universities. Nobody knew anything about it. So I couldn’t use this specialty and now the reason I did process safety was I actually wanted to do environmental engineering, but I couldn’t find a course so I went ended up in safety, but I want to do engineering that was socially responsible, that made an impact on society. And that’s what I liked about and so I worked for ESSO in the oil and gas industry, which I loved, I really did enjoy it, and ESSO gave me a lot of responsibility and opportunities as well.
Mel De Gioia 7:59
I’d love to go through where you’re at now what you’re actually working on.
So my night job
is what drives me is, is I’m president of the World Federation of Engineering Organisations. We are the peak body of the professional engineering institutions of the world, about 100 nations around the world, and 13 million engineers. It’s an incredible gathering of engineers, like a UN of engineering. When I first came to the presidency, we actually didn’t have a clear vision or, you know, pathway of where we wanted to go. So as President Elect, I talked to all the main members, as many as I could from every region. And I said, so what do you think we, not I, but we should be doing and this distilled down into a strategy and a vision that has been enormously successful, far more successful than I could have imagined and what it is is it’s looking at the role of engineers and the World Federation, in advancing the UN Sustainable Development Goals. World Federation of Engineering Organisation’s is an associate of UNESCO and it’s very close to the UN, we are the only engineering organisation that’s recognised at the United Nations as one of the major group of stakeholders. So we have a voice and a seat at all the major events and and so the UN declared the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015. And the message that I gave when I stood up as president is that every one of these goals requires engineering.
Mel De Gioia 9:40
This is an integrated approach. And sometimes some of those goals will look at them and say, so where’s the engineering. Engineering in every one of them and, and so getting this message across has been very powerful. And and the twist in that is that the the sub message is about the impact of engineering. So it’s about the impact that engineers have in every aspect of our work, and our world. So every one of them, if you look at it, engineers are doing it. And to show first of all the comprehensiveness of engineering in our world, and the therefore our responsibility as well, on the impact that we have, we need to have a positive impact. It’s not always been positive, but we need to have a positive impact, and to be thoughtful about our work, to think for every engineer to be thoughtful about the work that they’re doing, and the consequences of what they’re doing is very important. This has become a very powerful message, we need to talk about engineering and the impact it has. And that has come through with the declaration of World Engineering Day on 4th March. So this was a huge mountain to climb. I had no idea how to do it, but we did it. It’s going to come through in November. And this means on every year, fourth March, we can talk all things engineering,
Mel De Gioia 11:08
is there a special colour or ribbon or anything associated with it?
It’s every colour of the sustainable development.
Mel De Gioia 11:16
Perfect, that is so perfect.
So we’ve got a logo already, of course, which combines the world the 17 colours of the Sustainable Development Goals, and, and engineering So, so when you look at actually World Engineering Day, the whole lot, I understand that I’m hoping that I can have a banner of something to release it and announce it on the 20th of November, I can hardly believe it. I’m convinced something dreadful will happen.
Mel De Gioia 11:48
You keep talking about it, everyone. It’s done. Yeah. 4th of March, it’s in my diary.
I said, it this actually going to happen and they said yes.
Mel De Gioia 11:59
What an incredible achievement that has been such an amazing engineering journey you’ve had?
Yes, I have to say that I didn’t really embark on a journey. It’s just become I what’s really driven me is sort of my passion for engineering and to get the word out there about what a fantastic career it is and the amazing contribution that engineers make to society. So I haven’t looked back at the trail that I’ve left.
Mel De Gioia 12:30
I just wanted to take a short break here before we delve into Marlene’s hot topic, which is a bit of a progression on her experience with finding work when she arrived in Australia. So from the 20th to the 22nd of November of this year, Engineers Australia and the World Federation of Engineering Organisation’s is holding the World Engineering Convention in Melbourne. Dom and I will be speaking there about topics that were inspired by this very podcast. Check out our website for more details. We hope you’ve gotten your ticket and come see us give our talks for now let’s get back to Marlene.
the issue of diversity and inclusion still has a very long way to go. And especially in Australia, and in the countries where engineering first began as a career. So in the in countries like Europe, North America, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, we still have relatively small proportion of women sub 20%, despite enormous efforts to increase the proportions at university and some universities have achieved 50% in some courses, but on average, across Australia, students below 20% and but more importantly, women don’t stay in the profession. They, they leave, they go into banking, and then they keep leaving. And so you have very few women who make engineering a career long term and I’m very hoping that this changes but you know in the pipeline, we haven’t seen it yet. But in Asia and Africa, it’s very different. I was looking at the numbers today, in fact of for Malaysia, which has grown from something like around 5000 Women Engineers, and in the year 2000. And the last 20 years, it’s gone to more than 30,000. And so they’ve increased a huge percentage. And many countries like Myanmar, Malaysia and so on have 40% in the profession, not in the university. And in countries like Kuwait, 60% of the students that is more than 50% are women. So it’s a very different big picture nation, Africa and women are really going in for engineering as a career choice, a highly respected career, and they’re accepted in the profession for their skills. There’s other kinds of social barriers but in the profession there’s more acceptance than what we have in Australia.
Mel De Gioia 15:03
So what’s kept you in the profession? Like you’re the perfect candidate, and you’re still cranking along as an engineer? What are some things that have helped keep you in?
Well, I love it. I said, I’m crazy, but I love it, even if they don’t pay me!
And I never get tired of it. I am absolutely fascinated by the work, I really enjoy it. And I put in 110%, because I enjoy it. I really do. It sounds corny, but that’s what it is. And so that enables me to put up with all kinds of nonsense. And I have to say that I face barriers even today, I’m able to now find my voice and speak up and say, “This isn’t on”. There are many women who would silently vote with their feet and I would have silently in the past just taken it and lumped it. Now I do speak up, but it’s just not good enough. And, in fact, you know Australia we have the most basic conditions missing the hygiene conditions, like toilets and housing in remote camps and in work camps. You often have facilities with no female toilets or even unisex toilets, or you’ll have camps with no locks on doors, some basic stuff like that. So it you know, women just don’t feel safe. And so they just vote with their feet and they disappear. Don’t stay. There are some organisations that are doing a great job, you know, where they’ve got a good cohort of women. And so those women then together can speak up they have a voice.
Mel De Gioia 16:36
And make change Yeah.
Yeah. But many organisations have very few women and so they don’t have the voice. I was on the committee for Women In Engineering, the National Committee that ran the year of women in engineering in 2007. I was the deputy chair the time that was the world first. That was the first time that we also brought together women from companies like a particular company had offices all around Australia, those women came together and met each other for the first time and formed their own networks. And that networking and support mechanism is very important it’s one of the key elements that supports women in their careers, in addition to, you know, company policies and so on, but I think we simply can’t afford to lose women, the women have, the STEM skills are very important in the Australian workforce. And we really need to value them and we need to value that diversity. We need to value women because they are different and because they bring a different perspective. So I think that’s very important in engineering and generally, I think the it has not hit the radar. I was at a civil engineering conference two weeks ago, in Lisbon, which brought in all the civil engineers from around the world, every region, and they had session after session talking about the future of civil engineering and engineer Education. Not one person said the word diversity of spoke about diversity until I came on on the third day. Extraordinary! it was extraordinary that they had such a blind spot.
Mel De Gioia 18:12
Yeah, you don’t see it. You don’t see the gaps until you actually experience it yourself.
It’s not just gender, but also, I think broader diversity, very important in Australia to look at our indigenous engineers. I think we have tremendous value to add, especially in terms of understanding our environment and the solutions we can have there. I think we can develop some unique and innovative solutions. If we embrace the capabilities of indigenous people to be.
Do you think there’s some key things that we can do to to encourage that diversity in the workplace?
It’s leadership, and culture. So it’s our leaders right from the top, the CEO and chairs of boards, who need to be aware and sensitive to this and to lead the change, say “this is what we want, this is the kind of organisation we have, these are the kind of values we have”, which will then permeate down to the rest of the organisation supported by of course, you know, structured policies like recruitment, promotion, pay, you know, gender pay gap is 16% at entry level. How do you justify a 16% pay gap in Australia at graduate entry level? What’s your excuse?
There shouldn’t be. Yeah, an engineer’s an engineer, it doesn’t matter.
It just gets bigger and bigger. So structured policies, but basically that cultural values that saying this is this is important, this is how we work this is how we value everybody, as a team and therefore then the systems and structures need to work. One of the various organisations that you know, that are involved with, they talk to women when they leave, they do exit interviews, and this has been very informative. I mean, we know these things, but when the women who are leaving say to them, it seems to strike home. And and that resulted in some change as well. So it’s a systemic issue, you know, there’s no easy answer. It’s not the women’s fault. It’s not fix the women, sort of thing. It’s the system. So we really need to change our system and values to make that difference. But the benefits for Australia will be huge. There’s no extra cost actually. It’s just rejigging the system, but the the benefits will be huge.
So what are your thoughts on the future of engineering?
I think engineering is one of those careers that will be there. You know, we talked about all the changing careers that are coming through but engineering is right there at the leading edge of technology and if nothing else, it teaches you how to learn and how to understand new technology. So as technology evolves, engineers can keep up with it and be lockstep with it. Actually, every discipline of engineering is being disrupted right now. And engineers are adapting to it. They don’t realise it, but they are. And it’s just part of what we do because we learn and read and do things in a new way all the time. And so part of that is picking up that and absorbing that disruption. But this means that we are can be extraordinarily resilient, we will be the profession that will be around. So who’s going to do the AI, we are. You know, engineers. You know, who’s going to develop the systems in space and the new cities in space. On Mars, we are, you know, who’s going to develop all the transportation systems that will fly around, we won’t be using cars will be on and so on. You know that the energy, the water, all those things are going to come from engineering, we take that science, and we make it work. This is the brilliance of engineering and I think we just got it talk it out because young people just gotta know what you know, understand that this, this is an incredibly powerful profession as one of the few that allows you to look into the future and create it. Really envisage the future and create it. I can’t think of any other profession that does it so competently?
Mel De Gioia 22:19
What you just said, I think that needs to be highlighted everywhere. Because, you know, I’m old now. And I’m inspired to become an engineer. It’s like, I want to do that. And I’m hearing Beyonce “who runs the world?” Engineers do! I’m hearing that completely. What advice would you give to people that are just starting out then that have a career in engineering ahead of them?
We need to convey to young people to see that, that this is the career that can enable you to change the world. And it’s not. It’s not something that’s corny that I’m just saying it’s actually something I believe in and it’s an incredible Powerful profession. And even if you’re in one discipline, it enables you to, to work in another, you know, you learn to learn, and to think through things in a certain way you learn to take a blank sheet of paper and create a solution. You know, I have a, I have a garage full of old reports, every time I do a report as Oh, that was so good. I’m going to keep it to it next time and never, never have, because it’s something new. And yet, I can’t get rid of these old reports, go back to not 30 years, but just shows, you know how engineering is so innovative, so creative, and we don’t talk about that creativity enough. We don’t talk about the fact that it’s always so different. You know, it’s so changing. It’s never boring. I think that we really need to engage with young people and point this out to them and so they just don’t take it for granted.
Yeah, I think it’d be good if we do talk about it more because it will probably keep more people in the profession because as you said, it’s so much about innovation. And it gives you such a broad ability across the spectrum that we get poached out of engineering into, into banking in, you know, into other areas. Whereas I think if there was a much high profile for engineers, then it would probably encourage people to stick around as well.
But I think also by the same token, I think engineers need to step up more into, say, like politics and in a policy setting, and so on, again, for this very reason. So you look at the countries that are very successful economically like Singapore, the leaders are all engineers, you know, and so same as they get the technology, and they get the fact that this is how you use the technology to get ahead and innovate and to you know, have economic growth. So I think engineers need to not just do the the engineering the technology stuff, but they need to step out of that zone and go higher up and run the country.
Mel De Gioia 25:02
Just to finish up you, is there a piece of engineering that impresses you?
I think that some of the biomedical engineering probably impressed me the most. I think something like the cochlear implant, one of the great Australian inventions is incredible. And if you’ve had the privilege of hearing, having it turned on being there, when it’s turned on for the first time and a child first hears sound, it’s absolutely an unforgettable experience. And again, it’s that connection to the impact of engineering from the technology to the impact that it has on a person’s life for the rest of their life, and makes them productive and enables them to have relationships and the whole spectrum that we just take for granted. Because of that one electrode that’s sitting in the ear, that incredible invention, that’s transforming lives. I think this is what engineering is All About.
Mel De Gioia 26:00
Yeah, I’ve seen those videos of the hearing and also when a child has glasses for the first time I can see like the way that that face just lights up. Yeah, I can see it perfectly. Is there an engineer that has inspired you or that you admire?
I think that you can’t go past John Monash, you know, the great Australian war hero and leader. I actually have been in France to Harmel where he had the great battle of Fourth of July, which he won before 9am as a result of precision engineering, he engaged the apparently the US troops and they said Fourth of July kidding, we’re not coming. Don’t worry, you know, it’ll all be done by nine o’clock and they didn’t believe him. But he did. He did and that was a turning point in the war. But incredibly It was not just in the war, but he was a great innovator in reinforced concrete, sort of pioneered the use of reinforced concrete in Victoria in particularly in a great entrepreneurs well, but also he had a great spirit of service, which I admired. And I tried to emulate the importance of for leader being of service to his community. You know, it’s not all about you, but it’s about doing things for other people. And I think that, for me, is something that I find very inspiring.
Mel De Gioia 27:23
Amazing how much I’m learning to admire Monash actually. So thank you for sharing that with us today.
No, no, that’s terrific.
Mel De Gioia 27:32
Thanks you so much for joining us today.
Thank you. It’s been wonderful
Mel De Gioia 27:35
So many golden nuggets that have come out of this episode. It’s amazing.
Well, thank you.
Mel De Gioia 27:43
And thank you very much for tuning in to another episode of Engineering Heroes. I hope you’re enjoying our World Engineering Convention mini-series. If you haven’t already, there is still time to snap up your ticket to attend the convention in November in Melbourne. You’ll be able to actually chat to Dom and myself in person and experience some of the incredible speakers for yourself such as Marlene. If you want to know more about our podcast and what we’re up to your best book call will always be our website, visit www.engineeringheroes.com.au and take some time to check out what we have going on. Thank you so much for taking the time to listen. If you really enjoy today’s show, the best way to show your support is to go and tell someone, seriously it is that easy. Go and tell people you know all about our podcast. We look forward to you and your friends joining us next week when we bring you another interview with one of our engineering champions.