Board Level
Board Level
Nov 16, 2020
13 - Dr Marlene Kanga on lifting STEM expertise across the board
30 min

This episode, Catherine interviews Dr Marlene Kanga, a Non-executive Director of Sydney Water Corporation, Standards Australia, Air Services Australia, and Business Events Sydney. She is also President of the World Federation of Engineering Organisations.  

Marlene is an Honorary Fellow of the Institution of Engineers Australia, the Institution of Chemical Engineers [UK], Fellow of the Academy of Technology Science and Engineering [Australia], the Australian Institute of Company Directors and a Foreign Fellow of the ASEAN Academy of Engineering and Technology.  

She has been listed among the Top 100 Engineers in Australia and the Top 100 Women of Influence in Australia.  

 

 

Valuable Discussion Points  

[07:00] Women are often told that they can’t be what they can’t see but for Marlene, this does not seem to be the case, what drove her and why did she not feel those barriers?  

Marlene had a clear sense of purpose and believes she is one of the very fortunate people that knew about engineering and the impact it can have. She wanted to make a difference. When female engineers are asked why they do engineering, most often that's what they say, to make a difference. 

 

 

[09:46] What can Marlene say about people with STEM backgrounds who are not well represented  on many boards but whose skills are really needed?  

Marlene believes the reason behind this lies in the whole process of board selection. It is a systemic issue that really needs to be addressed. When someone comes along and brings a different point of view, it can be a long process to build that trust and reliance because on a board, you're working collectively and if something goes wrong, you're all responsible.  

 

[13:30] What are Marlene’s thoughts on the lack of women who are studying science and engineering? 

Marlene’s theory is that the countries where engineering first became a formal profession at the start of the Industrial Revolution as a formal profession, in places such as the UK, Europe, the USA, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia, there was a male dominated culture. So it started out as a culture that excluded women and that culture continued. It is very insidious but it is there and so there are less than 20% of women attending engineering schools in these countries with very low levels of participation and similar cultural issues. 

 

[24:21] Who and what motivated Marlene? 

Marlene’s motivation is really to be of service. She does not look at these roles for personal gain.  For her, the leadership is about outcomes and if someone is driven by purpose, they can have a good outcome and leave a great legacy but also importantly, inspire other leaders, and mentor and support them.  

 

[25:31] Why is it important not only to have more engineers in this country but also to have them represented on all of the boards? Why at this particular time is that so important? 

Marlene believes that Australia is now at a very critical inflexion. In a post COVID-19 world, there is an inflexion and acceleration into new technologies. Countries around the world have the fundamentals and are gearing up for that, not just in the United States, but also in India, China and many countries in Europe who are going to forge ahead. Australia has got to be innovation ready and Marlene does not think Australia is currently at that point. Australia is in danger of being left behind with dire consequences for economic growth and prosperity if these issues are not addressed. 

 

[28:28] What is the one thing Marlene wished she had known when she started out? 

Marlene is glad she did not know a lot when she first started, as she believes she may not have explored so many diverse areas. However, one thing she wishes she had known is to reach out and ask people for support. Marlene believes people are extraordinarily generous and those who actively seek support and guidance can benefit greatly from this.  

 

Key Learnings  

  • Diversity, not just being accepting of women but also of different cultures, is a continuum of an organisation’s culture of safety.  
  • The board’s role is not to worry about the availability of women engineers or leaders who are qualified to fill the roles but to create a pipeline of organisational processes, systems and culture that is ready for them.  

 

 

Quotable Quotes  

“… engineering is all-pervasive. Yet as engineers, we don't talk about it. We don't sell it enough and we don't talk about how this can actually advance our economies as well, create jobs, create prosperity and create a better world. In fact, I say to young engineers, if you want to change the world, become an engineer, because that's one of the few careers that give you the skills to make that difference.” – Dr Marlene Kanga 

 

“So by default, everyone is risk averse and everyone rather work with somebody they know and trust rather than take on somebody new because what's in it for them, they don't see the benefit or the value.” – Dr Marlene Kanga 

 

“People confuse what engineers can do and actually, you know that part of that technical work is a very small part of engineering. There's a huge amount of conceptual thinking, critical thinking to be done to develop solutions where there are none.” – Dr Marlene Kanga 

 

“It's not just policies and procedures but it's really transforming the culture and it's engaging the entire organisation into saying every member of our organisation is important and we value you, not in spite of the fact that you're different but because you are different, because you are different, you will bring something to the table that that we don't have, that we don't know and that's why we want you and that's why we need you. I think valuing everyone is very important.” – Dr Marlene Kanga 

 

“I say to them as engineers, if you had apipeline and you were going to supply a township with 100,000 litres of water and there's avery leaky pipeline, what would you do? Would you pump a million litres an hour to get that volume or would you fix the pipeline? What's the sensible thing to do? So let's fix that pipeline, which is so full of holes.” – Dr Marlene Kanga 

 

“Male engineering leaders say so what do women want? We've got all the policies and procedures and they're still leaving and they have a blind spot. They don't see it because, of course, they don't have women often at the table, at the management table to bring up certain issues.”– Dr Marlene Kanga

 

“So there are a huge number of reasons for greater diversity on boards, but especially, I think, in terms of science and engineering, because the future is all about technology and you simply can’t ignore that.”– Dr Marlene Kanga 

 

Important Resources and Links  

If you would like to gain knowledge in governance, and develop as a director in your industry or field, visit https://aicd.companydirectors.com.au/

If you would like to learn more about how CommBank is ensuring women are advancing their growth in business, visit https://www.commbank.com.au/women-in-focus.html

Host of the Board Level podcast, Catherine Fox is one of Australia’s leading commentators on women and the workforce. If you’re interested in learning more about Catherine and the issues she’s currently discussing, visit https://www.abc.net.au/news/catherine-fox/5244818

If you’re interested in connecting with Dr Marlene Kanga or viewing her professional portfolios and achievements, visit her LinkedIn via https://www.linkedin.com/in/marlene-kanga-am-31107126  

The Board Level podcast is produced by Nicole Hatherly, recorded at RadioHub Studios with post production by Cooper Silk and Iain Wilson

 

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