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Supporting Working Mothers

Engaging Children in STEAM

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Carmen Smith portrait

Interview from June 2020 

Carmen Smith is currently an engineer working for her local council in QLD and mother to her 8-year-old son. Before transitioning to the Public Works Sector, Carmen worked within the food, iron ore and alumina industries for 15 years. Carmen’s areas of expertise include data evaluation, problem solving and thinking outside the box. 

Keep reading to hear about Carmen's experiences:
  • Working in male dominated industry
  • Working remotely in Western Australia
  • Engaging her son in STEAM subjects
  • Balancing work and life and making time for frequent family holidays
  • Being the main income earner for her family while her husband was the stay at home dad

Carmen also shares her advice for how to thrive in male dominated industry! 

"There's that saying that 'good things come to those who wait", yeah, that's rubbish. That's a whole pile of poo! If you don't go out and actually grab it then you not going to get anything." - Carmen Smith

The following is transcribed from audio. 

You graduated uni in 2001 with a bachelor of engineering (Chemical), can you tell me a bit about your work before transitioning to public sector. 

Sure, so my first job out of uni I worked at a malting factory, which basically converts barley into malt which is the main ingredient in beer. It was a great first job; had a really small workforce but after a couple of years I was looking for more of a challenge. 

I was given the opportunity to work for a large mining firm based in the Pilbura in WA so I jumped on a big plane to the land of the red dirt! I actually lived residential whilst there compared to a number of people who do FIFO (fly in fly out) and I lived in company housing with my fiance at the time. So, the work was pretty hard and it was tough conditions and pretty mentally draining. 24 hours a day operation and if the plant shuts down, be prepared to answer those tough questions as to what's going on! 

While working in that environment can be very exciting because you're totally in the moment, the remoteness and the small community you're living in can also weigh you down. So, we made a decision at the time to move back to the east coast to be closer to family and to give a bit more of a technical industry a go. 

So, I switched to the alumina industry. When I first started, to be honest, I was quite out of my depth with the ins and outs of the process. It was totally new to me! But I found focusing on the data and the end quality of the product, I was able to understand all the levers that I had to use to guide the process back into spec. 

So that's pretty much my food, iron ore, alumina industry and then in February 2016 I was made redundant...

Why did you change your career to public sector and how was that transition? And moving into a role that would now be considered more civil based

In February 2016 when I got made redundant, that was a pretty sh*tty time in all honesty. It was just not a great feeling. So after all that, I was looking for a fresh start! I was just looking for something new and being in a town where the only 2 or 3 major industries were not looking for chemical engineers at that time, it wasn't a good place financially for us as well. 

I was originally employed by Council as a Technical Officer mainly because of my data skills. I was doing heaps of work with data when I was working in the Pilbura and within the Alumina industry. 

When I first started with Council it was definitely a bit of an eye opener! Probably one of the biggest things for me was I couldn't actually contact somebody that new the answers. Being in a technical industry, there was always someone that had been around for forever, and you could pick up the phone and talk to someone in that area of the plant, you could call someone at one of the other six plants within the Pilbura that would know the answers and even if they didn't know the answer, they could direct you to how to work it out for yourself. Then starting with Council, that didn't exist! Not in my department anyway. 

Also the fact that all the processes and procedures are not embedded and they totally vary from Council to Council, that was also a struggle.

Obviously, the fact that I had very limited civil knowledge; the fact that I didn't even really know what Councils did apart from the fact that I drove on their roads and occasionally the garbage truck would come past and pick up my rubbish and take it away to that magical wasteland, I guess I'd never really thought about it before. Everything was very new and different.

So that must have been a bit of a struggle for you to transition then?

In all honesty, it was but at the same time it was good because it forces you to be self reliant, to rely on your problem solving skills, and to just keep asking questions. 

Tell me a bit more about your son

Connor is 8, going on 18 some days I swear, he is an only child and very much a boys boy. He loves being active and is forever dirty! He loves his cars and his trucks, just like his dad and loves learning new things. He's also a big talker and very much a questioner, which can drive everyone up the wall on occasion, including parents, teachers, grandparents and the like. Although, he is actually quite good on the phone, he can have a conversation with a grandparent for a good half an hour to an hour, sometimes about nothing.

Connor's super smart though, he can process information quite quickly. He's grown up with lots of adults around him and he's also grown up with his dad spending lots of time on the phone as well. While he is good and smart, at the same time, he still needs to learn how to control his emotions and he does get pretty disruptive when he is bored. But, as I keep reminding my husband, he's still 8 and he is still learning and growing and he's still developing. All in all though, he's a pretty good kid. 

I’ve seen that during in the COVID-19 school closure, you were doing lego challenges with your son, where did you get that idea and what other activities do you like to do with your some that engage him in STEAM?

Schooling from home, or remote schooling, or whatever you want to call it. Oh my gosh, that was an experience and a half. With two parents working from home as well, in all honesty it is something that I hope I never have to repeat any time in my life! That was very, very crazy and very full on. As I said, Connor can be a bit of a hand full and especially when it's just us, that's where his attention is.

So the challenge, like a lot of stuff that anyone sees, was from Facebook. But it was one of those things that I that was good for Connor because I was able to basically give him some direction but it also had the opportunity for him to be very creative. So some of the challenges were things like "build the tallest tower that you can", which was pretty basic but also makes them think about when they crash and burn pretty early on because they're only one or two bricks high. But that's potentially not the best structure to build.

So there were definitely a couple of fails along the way. There were a few favourites as well. You know, build the biggest truck that you can or you have to build your parents dream house. That was kind of cool. He did it actually so that it didn't have a roof so that you could actually see the people inside and all the different rooms.

Build some planes and that sort of thing but yeah, he did really like it. Some other things that we did during that time was, I actually found a science webinar that was on every day. So that was put together by a company that specialises in kids and learning. That was totally free and I seriously love these people because they're amazing. 

Then we actually got to try some of the experiments that they did! We did have some failures because we didn't have the right equipment or the right resources but it was also a good learning experience for him to explain why it didn't work. So we made our rocket fuel and we tried to build a rocket to take off but we didn't have those little film canisters that they wanted and our rockets didn't seal properly and they just fizzed out everywhere but, hey, there was a lot of noise and a lot of fizz and he was pretty stoked with that. Once we went through why it didn't work and what we could do better next time and that sort of thing he was pretty happy with that. 

We also made some paper planes and we downloaded an app to do some star gazing and constellation spotting which he really loved. We did some cooking, which he does like but he has the attention span of an 8 year old, or a fish, sometimes so sometimes that doesn't work so good. We also did colouring in and that sort of thing. 

The time we spent at home he actually worked with his dad to plan, draw, buy all the bits and pieces, build and paint a billy cart! So he did that as part of one of his cub scout challenge badges. It was using bits and pieces that we had around the house as well as we had to do a couple of trips to Bunnings of course. He wasn't  allowed to buy any new paint, he just had to use what we had in the shed so Christmas coloured it was and now he is actually planning to build a bird feeder, he has told me. That's his new plan!

The good thing about the cub scout badges is they make you actually plan it all out. So, you have to go, just like an experiment, you have to start at the beginning; make your plan, do your diagrams, and then they actually have an evaluation section at the end so you can say what went wrong, what went right, what would you do different next time and if you had to give advice to someone else, what would you say. And then he did a bit of a presentation to the other people in his group, via Zoom because they weren't allowed to do face-to-face yet. Yeah, we did a few different things.

You’re a member of your local community choir and enjoy caravaning around small country towns, how do you make sure you have time for your personal interests like choir and travel whilst also balancing your career and your family? As a bonus, do you have any tips for parents travelling with kids?

So many questions! I guess the thing is, if you want to do it, you make it work! We actually have a ginormous white board in our living room that sits above the computer. It's broken down into a four week calendar and if it's not on the board it don't happen! And that goes for all of us in all honesty. So, we put everything up there from school activities, like at the moment school photos are on the board because we need to make sure that he is in the right shirt and that sort of thing. It also has all of his cub scout days because I have occasionally missed a Zoom meeting. Hubby's rural fire training sessions and that sort of thing and it all just goes on the board. Even our weekend activities, if we have invitation to go to places and that sort of thing. It all has to go on the board so that we can all know what we're up to and how to plan around it. 

When we bought our new caravan a couple years ago, we made a bit of a pledge with each other that  we would use it every couple of months and that even includes just going out to camp at the river. So, that's about 10km down the road and sometimes it's just an overnight one of sometimes we might go on a long trip, maybe down to Bargara or Bundaberg or something, so a couple hours drive but sometimes it's half an hour down the road to go down to Boynedale at the back of lake Awoonga and just do nothing. 

It's great to get outside, get active and just get away from the house for a while. Sometimes, you're at home and you just cleaning and all those other things that you have to do but it's not something that's going to promote good family togetherness and sometimes you just literally need to get away. Which is actually what we did last weekend, we just had enough and just packed up the van, now that restrictions have eased, and went a whole half an hour down the road and read books and did some cooking on the fire and Connor played and rode around with some school friends. It was great!

Sometimes it's just that change of scenery that can just change things so much. We've done a few longer trips with Connor. I guess it makes it a bit easier that we only have the one child. Trying to keep the kids informed on what's happening each day as well is really good when you're doing long trips. When I say long, we have only done a month away. Trying to keep him involved as well. So, he gets to pick the activities some days as well. When we're in the same spot for a long period of time, we can't go out every day. We try to do one day where we are out and about sight seeing. 

We went to Darwin in June last year. It was a total of about 5 weeks that we were away and we would do one day where we'd be out and about and it would be a crazy busy day and the next day we would be chilling at camp or just do a half a day and include a park visit or something like that because they get waaayyyy too tired. It's great that they sleep but kids just don't cope that well. Even as an adult, we get exhausted, you can't just keep going day after day after day. As much as there is to explore and look at, you just can't do it. 

The day on day off seems to work really well. We've had other friends who have done the same thing and said it worked really well. It just takes the pressure off everyone, in all honesty. 

Could you tell me a bit about your family structure, as I understand it might be a bit different to the “norm”?

A bit different, yeah, you could say that. Some people describe it as backwards, or upside down. My husband is actually the stay at home parent. So, I am the main income earner. We made a pact when I was pregnant that whoever was on the highest income would go back to work and when it happened, that was me. So, it wasn't planned that he was going to be the stay at home dad or anything like that. It just made sense. Incidentally, if it had of happened when we were living in the Pilbara, it would have been him that went back to work because he was on the higher wage. 

I guess, it was just timing and how everything just fell out. I went back to work when Connor was 6 months old, to the refinery. I was expressing full-time at work which was interesting trying to do that as well. My husband actually runs a successful small mechanical business from home in between doing school pick-ups and drop-offs. Trying to explain to some people to please not call me during the day if there is a school emergency or whatever, try to call him, it's actually usually met with deaf ears. The school delighted in telling me at one stage that they couldn't actually make the father the primary contact because it didn't  work that way in their system, that the mother had to be on top. I was just like well your system kind of needs to be changed a little bit. Yeah, curious things like that but I still get the calls and then I still have to call his dad to go pick him up. 

But hey, it's what works for you. While we may be backwards or a little bit different from the norm, our family works fine like this.

Did your husband start his business right when your son was born or did that come a bit later?

His business actually develoed to help the mums in our "mothers group" and I say that in inverted commas because while it was mothers group, he attended. So, we attended together for the first few weeks, then I went back to work and he was admitted as one of the fellow parents, well they ended up calling it a parents group in the end. So, it started off just to help the mums out. So, it was kind of, they would look after Connor while he would have a look at their cars or service their cars and they would have playgroup at our place. It sort of started from that and I guess it's kind of snowballed!

When we originally started the business, we didn't even register for GST we thought we were going to be that small that he was just going to do a couple of days here and there. When Connor went to daycare once a week, that was his day where he would get someones car in and he would work on it and it was just to keep himself in the game. Just to keep his skills up. And just, I guess, give him another thing to do because he was starting to get a bit bored. I mean, he's a great dad. He does all the housework and he does a lot of the cooking and that sort of stuff. He will clean the toilets and the showers and then he also does all the outside stuff as well! Sometimes I feel like he's just doing all the housework. The only thing he does refuse to do... He draws the line at the shopping. So, I guess that's one thing I can take up the slack on. 

What are some of the biggest things you’ve learnt over time that you can share with other women working in a male dominated industry?

 If I start at my first job. While it was really small, I was actually the only female that worked there. I didn't really notice it though because all the guys were my dads age and they kind of adopted me as their daughter which was kind of cool. I mean I just sort of fitted in and, you know, it was just that whole kind of father daughter relationship, which is a bit weird but it works!

In the Pilbura and the mining industry and even alumina, yeah, very very male dominated. So I just had to work out how I was going to, I guess, fit in. I was doing shift work when I first moved to the Pilbura to get to know some of the guys and what they did and in all honesty, that was probably the best way. To be able to show people that you're not afraid to get your hands dirty. So that can be literally or figuratively. 

At my first job out of uni at the malting factory, we would have a spill of grain on the ground and while it had to be basically thrown out, you still had to clean it up so everyone was grabbing wheelbarrows and shovels and I'm like "where's mine?!" and the guys kind of looked at me and went "what do you mean?" and I'm like "well give me a bloody shovel and I'll help you" and they were like "oh, ok..." Like as if, you know, that wasn't my work to do but I guess that's the thing, once I showed them that I was happy to pitch in to be a team member and to help pick up the slack, they get a bit less standoffish.

"So, totally don't be afraid to get your hands dirty! Get out there, in the field, and have that discussion. Don't just have it on the phone."

Even with some of my inspectors at the moment, I will actually video call them when they are in the feild, we can literally have a discussion "on site" because I can't go out there to be really next to them through the COVID crisis but it just feels a bit more real, I guess. If you have to measure something, take your level take your tape measure and get out there and do it yourself. Go and climb those ladders and literally see for yourself what's going on instead of having to rely on other people. 

The other thing, just as a young engineer. I saw a lot of really young engineers in the Pilbura thinking that they knew it all and sorry, but you're fresh meat over there. If you go over there thinking that you know everything, then you're in for seriously a world of hurt. Don't be a know it all! There is no way that you will know everything literally any of the time. 

The guys in the field or on the floor, they're honestly the ones that usually know a lot of the answers and sometimes you don't need to know it, you just need to drag it out of them. So you can have that discussion with them. The best way that I found to have the discussion with them is to have it out there and then, of course, moving the discussion to be around what is going to be in it for them. 

I like to use the WIFM principle or the "what's in it for me" principle. They don't really care about the technical ins and outs of stuff, they just want to know is this going to be better for me or worse for me. Am I going to have to do work or are you actually going to make it easier for me? And a lot of the time they might have to do a little bit more work, like they might have to do extra testing and that sort of thing but it means that if you've got it right you don't have to do it again, but if you stuff it up then its going to make heaps more work for yourself. So, I guess it's putting it on their level and to their knowledge level as well, to help them understand it a bit better. If you use big words they don't really care, they're just going to phase out of there and just go "yeah, yeah whatever". 

One of the other things is, when I was doing some of my training, it came to me that there's that saying that 'good things come to those who wait", yeah, that's rubbish. That's a whole pile of poo! If you don't go out and actually grab it then you not going to get anything. 

There's also no such thing as a stupid question. When I first started in the Pilbura, I was actually petrified of asking questions. I really thought that it was going to make me look weak and obviously, I didn't understand what I was doing and the industry was totally new to me. But, looking back, that was probably the most stupidest thing that I have ever done. I used to ask questions to colleagues and that sort of thing but I would never ask a question to someone superior to me for fear of it making it look like I didn't know what I was talking about. So, questions are king! If you don't know, then you ask! A lot of the time, half the other people in the room and wondering the same bloody thing anyway. If you don't ask it, someone else will. 

"Just ask that question and it's going to show that you actually want to grow and that you are willing to learn and that you can be mentored. It's not going to make you look dumb."


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