Engineering has been ingrained in Jessica Barber’s life for more than 15 years. Barber has worked as a general manager in the mining industry, and for a company that manufactures bricks in spaces for residential and commercial use.
When people think of engineering, they often associate it with men. The reality is that there’s an ever-growing presence of women in the mining and manufacturing industries, but more growth is needed.
A 2017 finalist for the Women in Industry Awards, Barber is helping to drive a thriving industry as a manager, mentor and role model for other women considering an engineering career. She was selected as a finalist while she was working as a general manager at Austral Bricks in Western Australia. In 2015, she was approached to work for Austral Bricks as they were looking for some gender and experiential diversity.
Barber’s background in mining engineering made her the perfect candidate to step into a role where she was responsible for the brick division. Austral Bricks manufactures bricks, brick facings, mortars and other materials for surfaces such as kitchen walls and flooring, along with primary construction use in residential homes.
“I thought it would be a very interesting opportunity to see if my skills were transferable.
“I had been in the mining and resource industry for my entire career,” said Barber.
Back to the roots
After one-and-half years, she decided it wasn’t a perfect fit for her and she went back to her roots – mining. “I was missing the mining industry,” she said.
Barber now works at Fortescue Metals Group as the general manager, overseeing 1600 employees.
“Fortescue Metals Group really supports diversity in all its true meaning, and certainly is a proponent for gender diversity,” said Barber.
“It’s getting more common across the world that female participation in the resources sector is continuing to increase,” she said.
The CEO of Fortescue Metals Group is a woman and other top roles are taken up by women as well as men depending on who best meets the role’s requirements.
“We really look for the right mix. The right blend.”
She prides her company on constantly striving for more gender and culture diversity. About 16 per cent of the employees at Fortescue Metals Group are women, but the company’s goal is to push this figure to 20 per cent by 2020.
Although this goal was in place, the company was always committed to getting the person that was the right fit for the role, said Barber.
“We will definitely not do any tokenism. It’s genuinely about finding the right fit.”
Barber doesn’t feel pressure being a woman in a male-populated industry, but she has encountered several women who found it difficult to deal with.
She knows women in her career that have struggled, so options such as flexible working conditions for women after parental leave are important, said Barber.
In addition, there are support networks and other opportunities that women in the industry should take advantage of, she said.
“Make sure that there are people around to support you if it does get uncomfortable,” said Barber.
From the time Barber hit the books at university, it was clear she was in the minority. Having supportive colleagues and friends was key, she said. When she studied at Queen’s University, Canada, about 30 per cent of the students were women, however once she entered the workforce, the female participation percentage plummeted.
“I was in the single digit range in the diversity perspective. I guess I just accepted that that was part of what I was taking on,” she said. Barber finished her degree in mining engineering in 2003.
“I was actually looking to go into marine biology. A guidance counselor in high school told me it was one of the most over-subscribed degrees at the time. The counselor told me to consider engineering.”
Fortescue Metals Group knows the importance of introducing young people to the industry. Staff often speak to university and high school students to encourage them to learn about engineering and what the industry has to offer men and women.
“We are also looking to take on roughly 50 per cent commitment to male and female graduates.”
Historically, the proportion of engineers who are women has been low. A 2011 Australian Bureau of Statistics census showed that women made up 11.8 per cent of the engineering labour force. Currently, women make up 9.7 per cent of employment in engineering occupations. Engineers Australia has researched the number and gender of engineering students taking up studies in Australia. It sets and maintains professional standards for its members consistent with international benchmarks. Engineers Australia encourages the development of engineering knowledge and competencies, facilitates the exchange of ideas and information and informs community leaders and decision makers about engineers and industry issues. When looking at the number of applications and offers made to students wanting to study engineering at universities in Australia, the figures are unsurprisingly low for women.
In 2010 there were 2,058 women who applied for places at Australian universities, compared to 14,655 men, a report from Engineers Australia shows. There is no significant change five years later when 2,566 women applied and 13,848 men applied. In 2010, 99 per cent of women were offered placings, compared to 82 per cent of the men being offered a spot at a university. Seventy-two per cent of the women accepted an offer and 54 per cent of the men did the same. In 2015, 96 per cent of the women were offered a spot and 84 per cent of the men were, too. Seventy-two per cent of the women accepted the offer, which reflects statistics from five years prior. Sixty-three per cent of the men took up a place. The number of women in the industry is slowing creeping up. Projects, including an early education program funded by the Australian Government, will help grow the number of both men and women stepping into engineering career.
A $6 million pilot program was launched across 100 preschools in Australia in March 2018.
The Learning STEM Australia program gives 4,000 children the chance to learn science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills through a series of interactive apps. In a statement, minister for education and training, Simon Birmingham, said engagement with STEM at an early age would be essential for children to develop the skills needed to navigate a rapidly-changing world and the jobs of the future.
“This will help plant the seeds of curiosity and inspiration in STEM from an early age and help with the development of spatial awareness as well as numeracy and problem solving skills,” said Birmingham.
“[It] is an easy-to-use teaching resource that introduces our youngest learners to STEM in fun and engaging ways.”
For example, the first app introduces preschoolers to the foundational STEM concepts of sorting, ordering, patterning and representations. “It’s accessible and fun activities,” said Birmingham.
With more focus on subjects such as engineering at a young age, the number of trained engineers could rise. It has been a rewarding industry for Barber and she is helping to create a path other women can follow.
Her skills and experience have led her to several manager and general manager’s roles and as she highlights, the industry is becoming increasingly supportive with women taking on a career in engineering in fields such as mining.