SAGE Q&A with Rachel McVittie

SAGE speaks to Rachel McVittie, Graduate Civil Engineer, Transport for New South Wales; UNSW graduate, Bachelor of Engineering—Civil and Environmental Engineering (double degree); and proud Martu woman.

Rachel Mcvittie

Where were you born and where did you grow up?

I was born in Sydney on Crown Street. I grew up in Miller, a suburb in Sydney’s south west.

What got you interested in engineering in the first place?

Initially it was environmental engineering that I was attracted to, as it offered me a way of strengthening my cultural and spiritual connection to the land. However, after extensive discussions with University of New South Wales (UNSW) staff, I studied a degree in civil engineering which was better suited to my career. I ended up doing a double degree: civil and environmental engineering.

Are there any engineers in your family?

No, I’m the first person in my immediate family to gain a Bachelor degree.

Were you interested in engineering as a child or a young person growing up?

I grew up in a low socio-economic community—one of Sydney’s poorest suburbs—so I wasn’t aware that engineering even existed.

Did you like practical subjects at school? Did you study science or anything like engineering at school? What interested you about it or what did you enjoy about it?

My path to engineering was a little unconventional. I didn’t finish high school because I didn’t belong in a system that didn’t seem to understand disengaged behavior in young folk is actually a sign that something is amiss and that more, not less, attention is needed. Many years later I found my way back to education, and encountered mathematics for the first time in years. I fell in love with it and discovered an aptitude that had gone unrecognised during my disrupted secondary schooling. After completing a Tertiary Preparation Certificate at TAFE, I was admitted to Engineering on my ATAR score.

What interests you about engineering now? What keeps you interested?

I love a challenge and that is something that engineering provides every day. Engineering is a continually evolving sector; technology and governance move quickly and so too does engineering—every day working as an engineer is different.

You currently work at Transport for NSW (TfNSW) as a Graduate Civil Engineer. What does your role involve, what do you like best about it and what have you achieved that you are proud of?

The TfNSW Graduate Program is a structured two-year development program, consisting of four six-month rotations. My current placement is within Sydney Trains—network maintenance division. My role involves providing technical support and engineering oversight for track maintenance activities.

Another important part of my role is to assist in the monitoring and investigations of civil assets reliability across the network by collating reports and identifying trends on conditions and performance. The role is also responsible for monitoring Geotech Risk Registers, structures defect management databases, and asset registers to ensure accurate maintenance scheduling.

My current role allows me to be a part of the solutions that connect communities and directly shape the future of our cities, centres and regions. The variety of work, diverse stakeholder network and scale of impact are all aspects of my work that I really like a lot.

One day, I heard some of my team members discussing how they are continuously painting over offensive graffiti on one of our signaling huts. The graffiti can be seen from the platform. I volunteered to paint a mural over the top of it as this deters graffiti vandals.

Whilst this isn’t exactly engineering work, I feel it’s a great achievement that I’m really proud of because I get to share my culture, while also preventing our customers from being exposed to offensive graffiti.

Has working as a Civil Engineer in a work role been as you expected it to be?

It’s better than I could ever have imagined. I think at university we are restricted in thinking and therefore our idea of what an engineer is. As a professional in this field, I’ve realised that being an engineer is much more than calculations. I’ve also learnt that the title of your engineering degree does not limit you to that one aspect of engineering.

How have you found being an Indigenous woman in engineering and your career so far in a more white-male-dominated field?

So far, my career has been both very rewarding and challenging being a woman in engineering. The team of engineers I work with are comprised of mostly men. A typical day in the field for me is made up of site inspections, where I look for any defects in the track network, managing small projects such as track welding and assisting the engineering managers in various tasks.

Most days I am usually the only woman present in a group of engineers, which at the start felt a little intimidating but now I feel very comfortable being in similar situations. Even if I am the only woman in a meeting or on site, I still feel like my opinions and views are heard and treated with respect by my colleagues. I feel a sense of pride being an Indigenous woman in engineering, as I feel I’m contributing to paving the way for more Indigenous women to take up engineering as a career.

I think the most difficult part about working as a woman in engineering is the lack of amenities available on site. When I am out on track the nearest bathroom may be a 10-minute drive away!

I never feel unheard or undervalued and I think this is because the ideas and solutions I present are usually quite different and unique. I attribute this to being Indigenous and the close connection I have with culture, community and the land. I am a proud Martu woman and the Martu are the traditional owners of a large part of Central Western Australia.

Has your work and career taken you overseas?

When I finished university I took six months off and worked in Brazil for a design firm, Techvias Engineering. It was an incredible experience as the projects I worked directly benefited very poor communities.

Do you find that your male colleagues in engineering understand why it is important to have women and more diversity in STEMM disciplines and workplaces? How do they feel about initiatives and programs that work towards this, such as SAGE?

I believe most male colleagues understand why it is important to have a diverse workforce, but there are still a reasonable number of men who feel women cannot perform certain tasks in the workplace. I find that they are supportive in the initiatives and programs towards diversity in STEMM, but perhaps are not willing to volunteer themselves and their time towards these programs which is actually quite disappointing.

Do you think SAGE is important for STEMM in Australia and for engineering?

Yes, I think SAGE is very important for STEMM, especially in Australia. I know that other parts of the world have a much higher percentage of women in engineering than Australia. Men and women have different viewpoints, ideas, and insights, which all enable better problem solving.

STEMM and the engineering field rely heavily on problem solving to create or invent products, solve complex problems and conduct research and development in many different areas: transport, medical, automotive, construction, power generation, etc. This is why I believe to grow as a nation we must strive to achieve gender equality in all our workforces, including engineering and STEMM.

If we have a gender diverse workforce we have a better chance of developing better problem solving skills. This could mean that better infrastructure could be built in our cities enabling faster commutes and reducing traffic congestion, or developing a vaccine for a disease that is not curable yet.

Australia, particularly Sydney, is growing in population faster than ever before and it is vital that we plan and develop the best future we can. To do this we need the best diverse workforce available. I don’t believe Australia is investing enough into STEMM, as we are still lacking a gender diverse workforce in STEMM compared to many European countries.

What would you like to achieve in your engineering career in the future?

My dream job has always been to work on the Sydney Harbour Bridge and I just found out that my second graduate placement is with the SHB maintenance team. I feel incredibly lucky for such an amazing opportunity! In terms of goals, my goal is to be a highly competent and reputed project manager.

Anything else to add …

I would like to encourage any woman who feels they might be slightly interested in having a career in STEMM to put yourself out there and learn more about where a career in STEMM might take you.

I remember when I first enrolled in my university degree, someone asked me what I was studying and I told them it was engineering. Their first response was “Oh, so you’re going to fix cars or motors?” Obviously that person had no idea what being an ‘engineer’ means.

I feel like a lot of people still think this way and without more awareness and promoting STEMM and gender diversity it will never change. I would like to encourage all engineers—men and women—to promote engineering to as many people as you can and let people know what your job actually entails.