B.TECH, CHEM ENGG, 1976
NON-EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - SYDNEY WATER CORPORATION, AIR SERVICES AUSTRALIA, STANDARDS AUSTRALIA
PAST PRESIDENT - ENGINEERS AUSTRALIA AND WORLD FEDERATION OF ENGINEERING ORGANISATIONS
PAST BOARD MEMBER - INNOVATION AUSTRALIA IIT BOMBAY DISTINGUISHED ALUMNA, 2012, OFFICER OF THE ORDER OF AUSTRALIA
I always wanted to be an engineer because my father was an engineer. He graduated just as India achieved independence and was involved in some very important infrastructure projects such as water supply and electrification networks. Sometimes, he would take me to a project before the formal inauguration, and let me turn on a light. I shared the excitement and sense of achievement. I come from Goa and we didn’t have electricity or piped water for many, many years. Now we have these comforts and so I’ve seen the impact of engineering on the lives of ordinary people in my village. When the IIT entrance exam results were announced, I found that my name was not on the list. I was inconsolable and cried for three days. Then, a letter arrived stating that I had been admitted to IIT Bombay. It was just that my name had got cut while printing (it was the last line on the first page of the list!).
It was a bit of a shock to see so few women at IIT. We were only 20 women in the then ‘Ladies Hostel’ and most were postgraduates. I wasn’t prepared for the tough environment. I was not used to the vegetarian food. And the work was extremely difficult, I studied 14 to 15 hours a day. But I think that prepared me, built my brain muscles, if you like. Everything else has been easy after that. I became the mess secretary in my second year. I was determined to control costs and went around with a bunch of keys, handed out ingredients and so on. The women cooks used to have a good laugh because my Marathi was terrible but we established a good relationship and they became very protective. I must have done a good job because I was in charge for four years, until I graduated. We used to routinely run out of rice and sugar because it was rationed. I thought, “I’ll negotiate with the boys hostel” as they usually had a surplus. The boys were always after my lecture notes, which were detailed and good. So I would barter my lecture notes for some rice. In this way, I learned to deal with people, to negotiate, and that has stood me in very good stead.
At IIT Bombay, I was taught environmental engineering by Prof. Indira Madhavan, one of the very few women professors in the faculty. That was where the idea of socially responsible engineering was seeded. I went on to complete a Master’s in Chemical Engineering, specializing in process safety, from Imperial College, University of London and a PhD from Macquarie University in Australia. When I first arrived in Australia, I sent hundreds of applications, to every chemical company in the Yellow Pages. I actually had to apply for jobs advertised under ‘men’ and ‘boys’. When I got a job with Esso Australia I was only the second woman engineer that they’d ever hired. And I never looked back. My field of work has been process safety engineering. I don’t have any large edifices to point out to say, “I built that”, but I know that I’ve kept millions in the community safe because of the work that I’ve done and that’s empowering. I enjoy my work so much that even if they didn’t pay me, I would do it.
In 2005, Engineers Australia called me to discuss ‘women in engineering’. This started my new journey. I eventually became Chair of the National Committee for Women in Engineering, and organized the ‘Year of Women in Engineering’ in 2007, including a national conference for women from across the country. Many were working as the only woman in their team and were so happy to meet colleagues in the same company, and went on to form their own networks. In 2011 I organized an international conference, a first for Australia and with travel awards from sponsors, which brought women engineers from around Asia. This was the inaugural INWES Asia Pacific Nation Network (APNN) meeting which resulted in nine women in engineering networks being established across Asia including India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. We now have 19 such networks in the Asia-Pacific region and the APNN celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2021 in the Philippines. I became the second woman (first Asian woman) to be President of Engineers Australia in its 94-year history in 2013. In 2015, I was elected President of the World Federation of Engineering Organisations (WFEO), which is like a ‘UN of engineering’, with members from 100 nations representing more than 30 million engineers. As President of WFEO in 2017-2019, I led the proposal for UNESCO to declare ‘World Engineering Day for Sustainable Development’ to be held every year, on 4th March. This is the first and only UNESCO international day for engineering. In 2021, there were 300 events worldwide and we were able to reach 32 million people on social media. As WFEO President I also initiated and led a review of international engineering education benchmarks that were approved in 2021. This will transform engineering from the inside out, making it more inclusive, encouraging innovation and critical thinking, considerate of the impacts of engineering solutions for sustainable development and accessible to all.
I still face enormous barriers but I’ve got a thick skin. I just let it roll off because my sense of purpose is so strong that it drives me forward. Engineering workplaces have developed in a male-dominated environment. You find that even the most basic amenities for women don’t exist, in particular in Australia. I’m advocating for those facilities and also for closing the gender pay gap, which still exists in Australia, even at entry level
A lot of young women struggle hard to have it all - very high-powered jobs as well as a young family and children. And I say to them, life is not a race. don’t be in a rush to do it all at the same time. You can take a break from something and catch up later. I was very passionate about my career and when I was pregnant, I’d gone to the board of my company and asked them to set up a childcare center. But when I had my first son, I just couldn’t go back to full time work. I’m so glad I took a break for time with my children. They are with you for such a short time, which is so precious. I wasn’t the perfect mother but I did my best, and like everything else, I did it with great passion and energy. I set up a consulting business when my children were very young so that I had the flexibility to have time with my children, my parents-in-law and my mother. You can’t put a price on that. Life is about everything, not just work. As a woman, you need to be a daughter, a sister, a mother, a wife and have good female friends and be a whole person. In my career, I’ve paced myself as if I am in a marathon. So I still have a lot of energy and enthusiasm, I’m not burnt out.
Engineering is essential for our modern world which needs roads, clean water, sanitation, communications. It is closely linked to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. As an engineer, you will acquire the skills to help make a better world, to improve people’s lives. This is engineering with purpose. It is important for women to consider engineering as a career that makes a difference. Also, in an increasingly technological world, it’s important for women to contribute to engineering solutions. If the engineering team is 50-50 in terms of gender, the resulting solutions will be more relevant to the community.