In the past utilities have been a male dominated industry, but today women are leading the way in engineering, analytics and project management across the electricity, gas and water sectors. Here, five women from metering, data and asset management company, Select Solutions, discuss the challenges they have faced, their mentors and why they love working in utilities.
Alanna Pollock, Analytical Chemist
After finishing my chemistry degree in Christchurch, New Zealand, I came to Melbourne for what was supposed to be one summer.
However, I was surprised to see that many chemist roles were inviting graduates to apply and I ended up at Select Solutions in the Chemical Services team as an Analytical Chemist.
Our team is responsible for completing analytical tests on insulating material (oils, gases and papers) samples, which are used in electrical equipment in both the transmission and distribution areas.
The data collected from the different tests that we complete is used to give a snapshot of both the equipment’s operating condition and also the condition of the insulating material.
My role today is more customer and people focused, completing asset diagnostics and condition reports for clients, assisting with tailoring our service on a per client basis, training up new staff and dealing with the back office tasks required to run the lab.
The thing I enjoy most about working in utilities is the diversity of this sector. I frequently get asked how it is that I am a chemist but I work in the electrical industry.
Until I applied for this position I was the same! As this has been my first role within the utilities sector, I’m always amazed at the broad range of talent and the differing skill sets of the other groups and individuals that I work alongside.
The biggest challenges we face are meeting our customers’ needs whilst working within a strict regulatory environment, and prioritising tasks at a minute’s notice to ensure that situations are rectified as soon as possible.
The team I work with (both in Australia and Singapore) have been by far the most influential mentors in my career. They have not only taught me the majority of what I know of the utilities industry, but have supported and encouraged me in my journey from being a fresh graduate to where I am today.
For the foreseeable future, I see myself staying in the utilities industry. The personal growth opportunities in my current role keep me interested and challenged.
Kate Marten, Gas Metering Asset and Data Team Leader
I entered the utilities industry in 2005 joining the Gas Data team, and I have worked on the gas side of the AusNet Services business since then.
My current role is Gas Metering Asset and Data Team Leader, and I am responsible for the operational integrity of the gas metering business segment through both asset and data management.
I run the gas meter replacement programs for AusNet Services, from identification right through to replacement. This can present many challenges from an asset management perspective.
To ensure these projects run well, the best way to overcome most challenges has been to build great relationships with all parties involved, from the suppliers to the contractors.
I’m enjoying the continual journey of learning that I am on in the utilities industry. I work closely with a number of engineers who have helped me go from data analyst to gas metering leader.
Customers want to be smarter with their energy consumption, so keeping up with the customer demand is challenging yet interesting.
Often their wants are ahead of our technology, so getting the right teams involved in innovation can be a challenge. The interest in renewables is also a challenge for utilities; however, it will also present opportunities.
I have had a few mentors, both inside the utilities industry and outside.
From within, Cheryl Kelly was a great mentor. She showed that while being a woman in this industry can present hurdles, they can be negotiated with hard work and determination.
Ben Woodman has also been a great mentor here at Select Solutions. He has really helped me get a handle on perspective.
Harriet Shing MP has also been a fantastic source of mentorship and inspiration. She shows that regardless of gender, if you want something you just need to work hard and believe that it is achievable.
It can be difficult to break the boy’s club mentality in this industry; however, it can be done. I have had the opportunity to work with a number of men who have only ever seen me as a colleague, not as a woman trying to infiltrate the club.
Unfortunately, I have also faced a number of males who really don’t think we belong here, which is a shame. However, it just makes me more determined to prove myself.
I really enjoy working in the utilities sector. Ideally, I’d love to move across into the Department of Energy so I can help drive policy and direction. I think with the growth in renewables, there are exciting opportunities ahead.
Kirstie Wu, Solutions Architect
I have spent the majority of my career working as a software developer in commercial software design and development, with diverse industry experience in transportation, telecommunication, utilities and government.
I am currently working as a Solutions Architect, responsible for the design of applications and services for Select Solutions and externally for our clients.
I work with other architects to define and govern the strategic direction that will assure technical quality before, during and after development.
I’m currently working on an exciting project that involves improving the efficiency of the usage of renewable energy.
We are building a system to take on a role as a facilitator of energy trading transactions, by aggregating power generated by household rooftop panels and trading or sharing it.
Being the Solutions Architect, my main responsibility is to find the right technologies and design the system that best fits this purpose.
I first got involved in the utilities sector by building an asset management system for a utility company around ten years ago.
Since then, I have continuously worked with the utilities sector and built systems for various purposes such as data acquisition, data analysis and visualisation.
I like the fact that the work we do has a direct impact on people’s daily lives and business productivity in a positive way. Most of the systems we build have a direct impact on how utility companies operate.
I have huge admiration for Edith Clarke, the first female electrical engineer and the first female professor of electrical engineering 100 years ago.
I particularly like her famous quote: “There is no demand for women engineers, as such, as there are for women doctors; but there’s always a demand for anyone who can do a good piece of work”. She inspires me whenever I am struggling as the minority in this industry.
Most of the time, I am the only female in the room and it can get lonely. “I don’t fit in” is the feeling I often have and I have to talk myself out of it if I want to do a good job. The recent trend of increasing workplace diversity has started to address this issue by having a more balanced workforce.
I think the best way to overcome gender inequality in any industry is to face the fact that there is different treatment for our male and female workers.
Providing equal opportunities regardless of an employee’s gender would be a good step forward.
Marie Slako, Delivery Manager – Data Services
I’ve spent 14 years in the geospatial industry, the last five years of that servicing the utilities industry.
My current role is Delivery Manager – Data Services, which sees me responsible for the delivery of all projects and programs within the data services department, specifically in power, transport, government and water/gas.
Collecting, processing and delivering field asset data on electricity networks; condition monitoring to predict asset failures before they occur, all form part of what a day in the office can look like for me.
Technology is constantly evolving and as a business we also need to constantly evolve to keep up with that change. In the power industry we see a lot of ageing infrastructure which increases the risk of bushfire.
Our customers need to know where their network has issues, Geomatic Technologies plays a key role in helping to identify and rectify these problems.
This year our team won the AsiaPacific Spatial Excellence Award for Innovation and Commercialisation for our unique approach to Bushfire Safety using LiDAR and high resolution imaging solutions to report on Powerline clearances. I love the interesting problems that we get to solve for our customers.
As a woman in the utilities industry I would say yes there are challenges. My career has mostly been in male dominated environments and I’ve learnt how to operate within that environment, but am always looking for the opportunity to network with more women.
Candice Blackney, Corrosion Protection Engineer
While I was studying my Bachelor of Engineering (materials) at Monash University, I got a vacation position at Melbourne Water in November 2010.
This led to a fulltime position at Melbourne Water as a Corrosion Engineer.
In November 2013, I was looking for work in Sydney and got a job as a Corrosion Protection Technician with Select Solutions, where I worked in the field on Jemena’s gas pipeline network.
Following this, I moved back to Melbourne in July 2014 into my current role as a Corrosion Protection Engineer.
In this role, I manage City West Water’s corrosion protection contract.
I work with my second in charge and between two to three technicians to design new corrosion protection systems, monitor existing protection levels and all other maintenance and capital work in between to support these functions.
I actually recently finished a paper on the major capital project I have been involved in for City West Water and Select Solutions, to retrofit impressed current cathodic protection systems to 280km of City West Water’s critical transfer mains.
In this project, I am responsible for investigating, designing, managing installing and commissioning twelve of these corrosion protection systems per year.
There have been many challenges during this project. The two main ones were that initially no one had any experience, and that it is very difficult to find suitable land to install an ICCP system.
I enjoy that it is a highly technical job where I get to exercise my brain and I enjoy that the industry is filled with friendly and passionate people.
The thing I find most challenging is dealing with regulation from governments who don’t necessarily understand the best engineering regimes and their decisions affecting things like choice of contractor and budgets.
I think, in the energy sector, the main challenge is around renewable energy and the fact that it will ultimately mean customers will not need to buy energy anymore. In the water industry, things are a bit more optimistic; however, budget pressure is probably the biggest issue being faced.
I have had one absolutely stand out mentor Phil Hart, who employed and mentored me at Melbourne Water. He not only had time to explain the technical points of the job for me, but also helped me manage projects and encouraged me to do things how I thought was best, while always offering a new perspective for me to consider.
I think there is very much a boy’s club culture in the engineering side of utilities. I have felt that I have needed to prove myself more because I am a young female engineer.
After a while of working together though, I feel this initial judgement fades away, and we can all just get on with the work.