Trang Pham, Civil Engineer at Aurecon and Chair of Women in Engineering Queensland at Engineers Australia, has had a varied career across retail, business, public service, and engineering in the private sector. She is passionate about representing and driving further diversity across STEM industries, particularly engineering, and recognises the challenges vary from organisation to organisation.
Engineering connects people – it’s not all stats and facts
Pham believes the engineering industry needs to make a greater effort to explain the societal and human impact of its work to invite and keep a more diverse workforce.
She explains, “People don’t understand it and think it’s very conceptual but it’s not. The stories we’re telling aren’t inclusive. We’re very analytical in how we describe our work. We say we’re building buildings, or designing roads, or building robots. This makes people think it’s purely technical and that engineering doesn’t require gender or diversity to be effective.
“But that’s wrong because the end users are humans. We need to talk about how the roads we’re building are connecting communities and providing access to health care and much-needed services, or how the robots we’re building are improving the quality of life for our ageing population.”
Being a woman in engineering was never a problem, until it was
Going to an all girls school, Pham remembers feeling empowered to study whatever she wanted, without any hesitation or restrictions based on her gender. At home, as the daughter of refugees from the Vietnam War, Pham also says engineering was a career she was encouraged to pursue by her parents because of its perceived stability.
By the time Pham started studying engineering at university, she started to realise that being a minority in terms of gender was going to be a part of her engineering career. She was often one of very few women in seminars and tutorials.
However, despite being a minority, Pham never felt the impact of a gender divide during her university years and says her diverse group of friends at this time ensured she was always welcomed and supported.
Once she joined the workforce, Pham’s experiences drastically changed.
In some work environments, she was part of truly diverse teams where everyone was from a unique background, culturally, religiously, or otherwise. She recalls having wonderful experiences because “you were a minority, but the majority was the minority.”
In other work environments, she “became an actual minority” and she saw significant shifts in how she was treated, viewed, and valued in the workplace.
At one stage, she had colleagues directly tell her she had only gotten a job because she was a woman and woman of colour – she ticked two diversity boxes for the company.
“It was so demeaning to my skills. I was so scared because of how I looked, I was actually standing out for once, and I felt so much more pressure to perform at a higher level than before,” she says.
Embracing a support network made me fearless
As well as her current role as Chair of Women in Engineering Queensland, Pham has been a Past Chair for Young Engineers Australia, and volunteers as a CSIRO STEM Professional in School partner. She attributes her ability to persevere past experiences of discrimination, while continuing to thrive in her career and contribute to the engineering community, to these support networks.
“Engineers Australia (EA) helped me maintain my voice within the workplace. It’s through Engineers Australia that I have developed my leadership and the role I play in the industry,” Pham says.
“It made me quite sure of myself in terms of what I had to say, what I had to contribute and that what I had to say was important. At times when I may have been scared of being seen or valued less in the workplace, through my experience with EA, I was able to take a step back and realise that I need to leverage my position and my voice to make sure I’m changing the industry for the better and for the people around me.”
Being empowered by her support network and with a drive to action change, Pham has been able to build allies and support network everywhere she goes, building her own resilience and ability to manage discrimination as it arises.
She encourages anyone experiencing discrimination in their workplace to “speak out”, but also recognises that this may not be possible for everyone. She says it’s important to assess whether the current situation is “taking your energy. If so, then you need to put that energy elsewhere that benefits you. That could be finding a job that supports you. That could be finding a support group of other women. That could be finding a hobby where you are supported and celebrated.”
She explains, “A lot of the time, people – not just women – get pigeonholed in a role and then their whole life revolves around that. For example, a lot of mums have that in any industries – people define them as a mum, not a professional, hard-working employee. It’s hard to say, ‘Ignore them’. But educating people that you are not just that person is really important, and developing that outside of work “
Today, Pham plays a key role in promoting diversity and inclusion at her current workplace, Aurecon, as well as highlighting for clients the ability to view engineering and business challenges through a human lens.
Relationships are everything in business
There were several times in her career when Pham felt she was a “failure”. She graduated several years after some of her peers due to needing to repeat some classes, and spent six months in retail management before using the skills from her business and engineering degrees in the corporate world.
However, over the years, Pham has realised that her perceived failures have led to some of her greatest strengths, and in the long-run, have enabled her to take leaps and bounds in her career that she otherwise may not have been able to achieve.
Her varied education across business and technical fields, combined with her diverse experience across multiple industries, combined with her strong work ethic and interest in understanding people has given Pham a matrix of skill-sets that are rare in engineering. In her words, it boils down to an ability to build relationships and connect on a human level.
She says, “If you can’t connect with your clients, you’re not going to bring work in and deliver the right solution. When you are building a relationship, you are trying to understand people’s stories, experiences and perspectives. Sometimes their issues aren’t engineering issues.
“Understanding that as well as the technical and commercial aspects is important, but understanding the person is the most important part. If you don’t get that, you’ll have slow growth in your career because you’re only skilled technically. If you build a relationship, people are asking for you and want you.”
About the expert
Trang Pham is a Civil Engineer at Aurecon within the Built Environment Unit, with previous experience in the IT and Infrastructure sectors. She is currently the Chair of Women in Engineering – Queensland and Immediate Past Chair for Young Engineers Australia – Queensland. Trang also volunteers as a CSIRO STEM Professional in School partner. Graduating from the University of Queensland (UQ) in 2014 with a Bachelor of Engineering (Civil) and Bachelor of Business Management (Marketing). Trang is currently involved with UQ’s Young Alumni Advisory Board and UQ’s Women in Engineering Alumni Ambassador Council.
Image description: Headshot from the shoulders up of a smiling woman with short, black curly hair, wearing a blue floral sleeveless top.