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Young up and comer says gender no barrier to ambition

Michaela Craft has had a big 2017. In June she won the Rising Star of the Year award at the Women in Industry Awards and followed that up with the Young Achiever of the Year award at PACE’s Zenith Awards in August. And to cap off the trifecta, she and husband Luke have found that they are expecting their first child in March 2018.

At a time when a majority of men and women are getting married in their early 30s, and starting a family later still, the 26-year-old Craft sticks out from her millennial contemporaries. And it’s just not on the domestic front – she entered an industry that is heavily dominated by males. Graduating with a Bachelor of Chemical Engineering in 2012, Craft set off to forge a career first with Mars Foods and then BOC where she is currently the RSP energy manager. Why chemical engineering?

“The main reason I entered the field is that I was always better at maths and science,” she said. “Those subjects came a lot easier to me than English. My older sister is also a mechanical engineer so when she started studying engineering I took a strong interest in it. It’s one of the career choices I considered and the logical approach to problem solving – a fundamental part of engineering – really resonated with me.”

After graduating, Craft started her first job at Mars Food Australia as a process engineer before heading over to the BOC operations team. However, a spot opened up in BOC’s energy team, which suited Craft as she was interested in how Australia’s energy market worked.

“The energy team at BOC crosses over very strongly with the operations team,” she said. “There was a vacancy in the energy team so I stepped across as I was really interested in learning how the energy markets in Australia and New Zealand operated. I thought I would enjoy the challenge of managing the flexibility of the site operations to minimise energy costs, without impacting other areas of the business – and this can often be a very fine balance.”

One of Craft’s mentors, RJ van Tonder, who is the general manager of procurement at BOC, said that Craft is a natural fit for the role.

“Michaela is very clear and logical in her analysis and suggestions,” he said. “She always puts forward compelling arguments. Her ability to convey or influence decisions in an often unpredictable market is very good. It provides the confidence that management needs in the administration of a volatile commodity such as energy.”

Craft loves her job, but one thing she did mention during her winning speech at the Zenith awards was the lack of women engineers in the workforce. Craft doesn’t pretend she has the answers but puts forward a couple of ideas. One for why female graduates are not coming through and the other as to why some might find it hard to kick on once they are in the industry.

“Female engineering graduates made up about 45 per cent of my class, but when I stepped into the workplace they only seem to make up about 10 per cent of those in the workforce,” she said. “It seemed that a lot of my female engineering friends have stepped more into management consulting or management roles rather than a strictly design engineering field.”

Then there is the lack of female role models in the workplace. Craft points out that this is not necessarily the fault of the companies themselves and in the case of BOC, she says that although the management team is male dominated, they are making inroads.

“There are not a lot of senior female engineers within the company,” she said. “If you look at our top 50 senior leadership team, a majority are male. Our MD is male, all our directors are male but in saying that they realise this and they’re trying to encourage women in industry to reach their potential.”

And with a family addition expected in the new year, the managers have been very supportive of her. Which is great, she said, because she is very career focused and doesn’t see the role of stay-at-home-mum as being one she will be embracing any time soon.
“BOC has a really good paternity scheme whereby they are encouraging women to stay in the organisation even when they are going to have children,” she said. “My managers have always been extremely supportive of me. My mum was an amazing stay-home mum but sacrificed a lot to do that role, so that’s not really something I see myself pursuing. Currently, I plan to return to work full time as I want to continue to develop my career. I would really enjoy going into a role where I’m managing others. I’m quite young at 26 and it’s a scary thing to think I have to step away for six or 12 months. However, I definitely think I can step back in and continue the career ladder, especially when the workplace is supportive.”

Mentoring is also big on Craft’s radar. Van Tonder says that while Craft operates largely independently he understands it is an important role to play.

“It’s pretty clear there’s not much in additional subject matter expertise I can offer,” he said. “However, when it comes to the process I make sure we don’t run into roadblocks when we get very close to execution points. Occasionally, I might offer an opinion on redirecting Michaela’s energy or just help plan for three steps ahead rather than the next phone call. This is something she is really open to and responds to really well.”

Van Tonder says the scope of Craft’s work is substantial and that she deals with general managers and directors of the company on a regular basis. He’s also impressed by what she has learned over the past 12 months in what has been a steep learning curve. He has also been struck how not only does Craft stick to her guns over certain issues, but also listens to others and is at home talking to both contemporaries and those in the higher echelons of management. She also isn’t scared to bring new ideas to the table.

“For example, one of the things that she has driven this year is the establishment of differing contracting methods for energy in our business,” said van Tonder. “This has been due to a direct response of how she’s viewed the market. Michaela kept in touch with some of the best practices so that we could execute these changes internally. And to do this she needed to have direct conversations with directors and GMs. It’s not just about the one big change she has done but it is an example of how she has come into the role and really pushed to change the way we approach energy.”

Having been in the workforce for almost five years, Craft has no regrets about her chosen profession. She loves the challenge and the support she gets. And as a person at the cutting edge of a career that hasn’t attracted great numbers of women in the past, what is her advice to those who are thinking about entering the profession?

“My best advice is to go out and say what you think,” she said. “Get the information you need and really step up into that role that they have offered – you are there for a reason. My second piece of advice is to find a good mentor, whether they are male or female. Both my mentors have been males but they have been really strong in helping me assess situations. One of the best things I’ve discovered is having a strong mentor can make your career path so much easier because they can recognise situations and give you a different point of view, usually this comes from their own experiences.  I think when starting out that is the first thing I would get – a mentor to provide that support.

“Also get a group of young people around you. At BOC, I wasn’t a graduate however I do get involved in some of the graduate activities. Having grad group activities helped understand where other people are at and what is achievable and what is not. Sometimes you can have unrealistic expectations, which leads to unnecessary disappointment. To have that support network is really, really important.”

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