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Supporting Working Mothers

Engaging Children in STEAM

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Megan Quinlan
Article from July 2020

This article features the positive and powerful, Megan Quinlan!

Megan started as a Graduate Process Engineer in Pilbara iron ore operations and expansion work (about 2.5 years) then moved to a nickel processing site in Western Australia where she worked as Area Engineer, Shift Engineer and then Safety Process Engineer before becoming the Senior Process Engineer which shes's been doing for about 5 years.

She is passionate about engaging women in STEAM, promoting women in leadership and improving workplace flexibility and self-care to improve work/life balance and mental health.

Keep reading to hear Megan talk about how you can still work in senior positions even if choosing to work part-time to help achieve a work/life balance that works for you.

“Especially being a woman in STEM, you have to be resilient. You have to be able to bounce back because you get many random things thrown your way that men in STEM may not necessarily get thrown their way.”

You're now working in a senior role. Could you give me a brief overview of your career and how you progressed into a senior role and where you'd like to move on from here?

Yeah, I grew up in and studied in Melbourne, went to uni in Melbourne and then got a grad job all the way up in the Pilbara. You know, 10,000 kilometers away from home and I've never lived out of Victoria and moved up there and lived up there for a couple of years. I did a process engineering role up there and then got my job down where I am now at the nickel operations that I work at. 

So, I've done a lot of different roles there over the time. It started out as an area engineer role, then moved onto a shift engineer role. So, for about a year, we had each of us on a different crew and I learned a lot. I learned a lot from the operators and having to look after the whole plant rather than just one area. Then out of that role, I came off shift and went into a process safety role. So rather than worrying just about the operations, worrying more about the impact of decisions that we made in terms of safety. 

Then I got pregnant and went on maternity leave for a year and then came back and pretty much moved straight into a senior role. 

Just because of the length of time that I'd been there, I moved into a senior role rather than just predominantly an area role. So, the senior role was more focused on the long-term project improvement, long-term cost savings, all those kinds of things, rather than the day-to-day operations. We'd leave the day-to-day for their area engineer to worry about and it gives them a chance to learn the plant. I'm still learning the plant, but I know majority of it.

My oldest is six, so I've probably been in that role for about five years. From there, I think I really want to try and transition into a supervisory leadership role. I’m keen to show what I can do in that role. I haven't really been given that opportunity, especially working part-time, it's very difficult to get the leadership team to realize that you can do those kinds of roles part time. From there either do that or do a more technical role, but I am looking to going into looking after people and encouraging them into what they want to do as well. I'm very keen on being a mentor especially for our up-and-coming female operators and female engineers, being that mentor and being that sounding board for them, for what they want to do.

You said you're working part time. Have you found it difficult to do your work part-time or have you faced any issues with managers or other people within your team thinking that you are not pulling your weight? 

Yeah. I job share with another lady. I do a 20-hour week and she does a three day week. So, I do two and a half days and she does three days and yes, you do face that. You face things like, “oh, I didn't know you weren't working today.” Or “what days do you work?” I find I work harder. I work much harder knowing I'm only onsite two days out of the week because I've only got two days of opportunity to talk to operators and get things done. But especially with COVID, I have found I'm getting a lot more done at home. We've freed up and we've made a lot more things online. So it's given me the ability to get a lot more things done that I wouldn't necessarily be able to do at home.

I have an amazing boss. My boss works four days a week, so he's very supportive of flexible work and he doesn't give me any barriers on what I need to do, but there is a perception that if you work part-time that you've taken the piss kind of. I certainly feel like between myself and the lady that I job share with, we put out more than one person's worth of work in a week, which is amazing for the team that we work for. They know that we both work very hard, we are contactable at any hour really, and if they need help, they can call either of us and we will help them. 

I remember one night we had a pretty bad lightning storm, and it tripped a part of the plant and I was at home and both the other two people I work with had worked that day and my husband was at home and I just told him I’m going to work and he's like, “yep, no worries” and I left work at 2:00 AM. So, they know, but we have a really good team that any of those team members would do that as well. So yeah, you work a lot harder working part time and juggling everything else.

Jessica: Definitely. I work with a wonderful engineer, and she was part time for many years following the birth of her children. She only did a three-day week, I believe, but based on her outputs and her deliverables, she was doing just as much, if not more, than a normal full-time engineer. She faced a bit of adversity from her manager at the time saying that it's a full-time position and she needs to be full-time otherwise they needed to hire someone else because it's a full-time position and she ended up getting another position within the company, but with a manager that was going to be more flexible and allow her to continue doing that part-time work. I think it just goes to show that it's not always the organization that has to be flexible and have policies in place, obviously that helps, but really, it comes down to the manager and whether the manager's willing to be flexible or not.

I work for a company that has flexible work arrangements. You can work whatever you want to work and yeah, I think it's a stigma. I think there's just that perception of, if you're not physically at work, then you're not working. I think COVID has stopped that belief a little bit, but I think that will start to creep back in slowly. We can go back full-time now at work if we want, but I'm still choosing days or I'm like, “no, no, I'm not coming in today. I'm working from home” because I have an hour of commuting every day. So, if I can save that hour, that's an hour that I don't have to make up in the evening. My oldest is at school. So rather than putting her in out of school care, I pick her up from school, which means I leave work at 2pm. So then I have to make up about an hour in the afternoon. So, I'd rather be working that hour earlier than having to make it up when I'm trying to scramble dinner and kids and homework and everything else that we juggle. 

I think it's up to purely the manager and I think that will slowly change with time when you've now got the next generation of managers coming through that know that flexibility works. And we've got people in our team who are working flexible work arrangements, but purely not because of their children. So for example, if somebody in my team's got an appointment and it's an hour the opposite direction of work, my boss would say just work from home. So, there's flexibility in our whole team that if you want to work from home for the day, go for it. As long as you are meeting your KPIs, I don't care. We don't care how you get it done. So I think that's the most important bit that just because you're not at work, doesn't actually mean you're not at work.

It comes down to the person as well as yourself to make sure you are still being productive. Make yourself accountable, make sure you are still doing your work because if you do work from home and then you slack off a little bit, then that's not going to be good for yourself or anyone else. It’s just going to reinforce this bad stigma about working from home. But if you want to work from home for legitimate reasons, like I found working from home, I was way more productive, then make sure that you are still meeting those KPIs, and you are still delivering what you need to deliver. Then I think the outputs will really be proof in themselves that working from home is very possible.

I have a spreadsheet where I track all my hours and I track what I do each day because I found when I get to my one-on-one meeting with my boss every month, he'll be like, “what did you do?” and I'm like, “I can't remember” knowing that I worked on a lot of stuff, but I just don't remember. Especially since having kids, I have mummy brain, I can't even remember what I had for lunch yesterday. So, if I track it, then I keep myself accountable because then I'm like, oh, that's what I actually did work on, and yes, I emailed that person and I rang that person and I worked on that project. It's baby steps but at least I can see that I've progressed three or four different projects rather than going, “what did I do?”

Lists are amazing! I'm the same coming back from maternity leave. My daughter is two now so I thought my brain would be back, but it's not, apparently it never comes back. My memory is just nowhere near what it used to be, so I write everything down. If someone comes to talk to me and asks me to do something, I need to write it down because otherwise I'm going to forget it. A lot of people will talk in person instead of sending me an email. If they send me an email, that's easy, it's in there, it's in writing, I'll remember it. If they just come and talk to me no doubt it will be forgotten if it doesn’t get written down.

I'm the same too and I think a lot of it's to do with the fact that you're not just remembering work things anymore. You're like, “have I packed that for the kids?” “Have I made the lunch?” or “have I done the washing?” Your brain is remembering everything it's just now half of its work-related and half of it is family related. Some of the stuff that I can churn out from work, like we have trends and things that we monitor, and someone was asking me the other day about what the tag is for something, and I'm like, “yeah, it's blah, blah, blah” and he's like, “how do you know that?” I'm like, “yeah, unfortunately I remember a lot of random things and I'm not sure are helpful except for at work.” So, I think it's a lot to do with that as a mum or as the primary caregiver of our children, we juggle a lot more than say the guy that goes to work and he either has grown up kids, so he doesn't have to worry about them anymore, or his wife does most of the primary caregiving. I think a lot of it is that you are juggling a lot more, that doesn't matter to work.

You've got two kids and they're aged three and six. Could you tell me a little bit more about them and how they've influenced your career? 

Yes. So, I've got Alyssa who's six and Georgia who's three. Alyssa is me which is probably why I clashed with her a lot unfortunately. She's very bright, a massive bookworm. It's blown my mind this year, she's in year one and she just curls up with a book and reads and I'm like, “that's me. That was me as a kid.” Both my kids love Lego. I don't know whether that's just me pushing them into things that I loved to do as a child or that’s just what they do. Georgia’s a gorgeous little, three-year-old. She’s turning four next year, she starts kindy next year, and she's hilarious. She's a right cheeky little rat bag, but she makes me laugh and she comes out with just one liners that I'm like, “where does that come from?” 

In terms of my career, I think for me, I want to show my girls that you can be a working mum in a job that isn't necessarily a school hours job. That if you want to do that job, because you love that job, you go and do it no matter what. 

You know, hats off to stay at home mums. I can't do it. I cannot stay home. I would go crazy. The school holiday sends me wacky. They just push all my buttons. I just can't do it. I need to do something that's for myself and that's what I want to show them as well, don't get lost in being just a mum. I'm not just Alyssa and Georgia's mum, I'm Megan and I'm an engineer and I'm Daniel's wife. There are so many other facets of my life that I'm not just a mum. 

My mum was a computer scientist, she studied computer science at uni and she worked until she had me and my brother and then she ran my dad's side business. She did all the accounting and stuff. I always looked at her and she wasn't just being a mum. She was running around like a headless chook doing all the bills, everything like that and she never stopped me from doing what isn't predominantly a girl-based subject. I did chemistry, I did maths, I did physics, all those subjects. She's like, “if that's what you enjoy doing them you go and do that because that's more important.” Don't do a job that you don't like doing, just because it's well paying, or it pays the bills. Do something you enjoy doing because then you'll get paid back in dividends.

It sounds like your mum was really a bit of an inspiration for you. Did her being in a science and maths background herself inspire you to get into that sort of thing?

Yeah, I think so. Both of my parents studied that. So, I think being left-brained and being sciencey and math based, I always enjoyed it. Maths came easy to me. I loved reading but doing art and literature and understanding books and things like that, it just didn't come naturally to me. Whereas science and maths comes very natural to me. I'm very black and white. So, I think that's probably why it made sense and I can see that in my kids as well. I can see that, especially my older one, she's just very black and white when it comes to things. So, I think for me too, to show the girls that you can do a job that you enjoy doing. I think both my girls will end up in a STEM related job. You know, I'm an engineer, my husband's an instrumentation electrician. So, they're both very STEM-related roles. So I think both of them will probably end up doing that as well. Just based on what I've seen before.

Yeah. I think we're probably in a pretty similar situation in my home. My mum has told me that growing up, all she ever really wanted to do was to be a mum and then she also really wanted to be a grandmother once she became a mom, but she always still worked, just something so that we'd get a little bit extra money to go on holidays and that sort of thing. But my dad is an electrician and I always enjoyed hanging out in the shed with him being his little TA, that sort of thing. Even though my mum didn't do a STEM career, she's still always been more left-brained and better at maths. None of our family is very literacy focused whereas, like you said, maths is kind of black and white. You're either right or you're wrong and there's a very detailed process on how you get to the correct answer. That's what I like. I like to know what I'm doing.

A discussion about home schooling and engaging children in learning

Yeah. I don't know how I'm going to teach my kids if they struggle with maths because I'll be like, “that's just how it is” and they learn so differently now. It's been pretty good at the moment, but I'm waiting for when they start learning division and things, apparently, it's very different to how we learnt how to do it. So, I'm not looking forward to it because I'll be like, “what are you doing? I don't understand.”

I was talking to a lady who was having to homeschool through COVID-19 and they were watching this video on how to do multiplication and apparently they were drawing little people and stuff and she looked at her daughter and she's like, “do you know what they're talking about?” And her daughter was like, “I've got no idea.” They ended up just teaching her the way that we taught how to do multiplication of multiple numbers and the daughter just was like, “oh, that makes so much sense.” She emailed the teacher and was like, “okay, we watched that video. We had no idea what we were watching. So we just taught her the old school way. Hope that's all right.” And the teacher didn’t mind.

I'm not looking forward to it. I’m lucky that I did the difficult math. So, if they do that math, I can help them with it. We get a little homework already and she's learning how to tell the times and I think they've started doing three-digit number addition and subtraction and she's fine with that, I don't even worry about her. With my youngest, in pre-kindy they were rolling dices around and they expect the kids to count the number but, my youngest, Georgia, she'll just go that six that's four. She can just already recognize the numbers and the teacher's like, “that's a pre-primary outcome.” And I’m like “yeah, she’s a bright one.”

It's about stimulating that learning like before school holidays when we over in WA, in the last week of term, they said we don't want the kids to come to school, but we're not teaching them any curriculum. So, we did video dial-ins and things like that. And I said, “oh, well, how about we make a volcano!” you know, do the whole bicarb soda, vinegar, eruption kind of thing. So, we got her to build her Lego volcano and just trying to do lots of different little things. My hubby's plays guitar, so I've learned piano. So, we're kind of like, well, we can teach the kids how to play guitar or play drums. Just trying to think of different ways of getting them to learn without thinking that they're actually learning.

My daughter lives off in her own little world. So, I was trying to get her to write letters to grandma and grandpa. I've still got to post them, but she would write a typical six-year-old letter; write one line and then draw a picture but I'm like, “no, no, no. You got to write what you did today” and she’s like “no, I don't want” So I’m like “fine, write the one line then write love from Alyssa and put it in the envelope and we'll post it off.” My brother's got three kids and they're in Melbourne, so we’re trying to see if we can encourage them, to do pen pals, because his kids seven, five and two so the older two can write letters and things like that. We’re trying to encourage that because we don't talk to them very much, so we’re trying to encourage them a different way of communicating.

I also make my kids make their friend's birthday cards. So, I just have plain birthday cards and plain envelopes rather than buying the one or two cheap cards. I get them to write out, happy birthday and draw some pictures and we do it that way. Some of them are funny. I’ll say “what have you drawn?” and she's like, “oh, that's me and so-and-so in the garden.” I'm like, okay, cool, even though you've never played in the garden with them, but yeah, we’ll go with that.

Self-care and looking after your mental health are really important to you. How do you achieve a work-life balance that works for you as well as sustaining your mental health and self-care?

Recently through COVID I didn't switch off. I worked from home and I was on my computer every day, just working and it wasn't working for me so I deliberately set out Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, which are my rostered workdays. I will work into the evenings to make sure I've done my 20 hours a week by Wednesday night. That way Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday my days. I'll look at the work emails, but I don't log in and I don't do any specific work. Now that I'm doing that, I find my work-life balance is a lot better. I can actually go, no, these aren't my workdays. Those guys have got it covered. If they need me, they'll call me and I'll answer the phone, but I'm not jumping on my work computer to do any work.

The other one for me is exercise. If I don't exercise, even if it's just a 10 minute YouTube clip or a walk around the block, I go crazy. I've especially learned that after having the girls that if I don't exercise, I don't feel good. The girls will say, “why are you going for a run for?” and I'll be like, “because mummy needs to look after herself. Mommy needs to make sure she's feeling good.” If I'm having a bad day, I'll say, “I'm not having a good day kiddos, just be nice to mummy today. Mum might be a bit grumpy today.” I think if you think about it a lot, then you you're being more proactive about it.

The last 6 to 12 months work have talked a lot more about mental health and about self-care and about finding how you do it. Every single person will do something different for their mental health. I eat a lot of chocolate and I think that probably helps my mental health. I'm not a drinker, but I eat a lot of chocolate. Just finding little things here and there that make me feel better. 

I read which I haven't done anywhere near as much since having the kids, but I'm trying to be proactive about that. I love doing puzzles and I've actually got a bit of a cutout of a piece of cardboard off a package we must have had, and it sits on the floor in front of the TV, and I sit at night and I'll just randomly put a couple of pieces in. So, it doesn't take up room on the dining table, which it used to, and it's just a way of me unwinding, where I'm not sitting on my phone. I find I kind of get lost in my Facebook, Instagram scrolling, and I don't think that's good to do that all the time so I try to read or I do puzzles. 

It's about finding what you enjoy doing and putting that time aside to do it. Mums are really bad for not going and getting their hair cut, not going and getting a massage, not shopping for themselves. They'll go to the shops and be like, “oh, that's really cute. I'll buy that for one of the kids” but not actually going out and making sure they look nice. 

My husband says, “I'm not saying it in a bad way, but you know, make sure that you look nice and that you look after yourself” because he understands that if I’m not happy, then this whole household isn't happy. He’ll say “If you need to go and get your haircut and Georgia's at home, I'm happy, go and do it. And I'll work around it. We'll make sure that the kids are looked after.” So, I'm lucky that I've got a very supportive husband that makes sure that he knows when I'm not in a good head space and he will take the kids for a bike ride or get them out of the house, knowing that I need a bit of me time where I do absolutely nothing. Then likewise for him, I know when he's not a good headspace and I'll be like, “come on kids. We're going to the shops. Dad needs some, you know, guitar playing or YouTube watching time.” I think if you've got a good partnership, I think that helps as well in that you can recognize when each other's struggling.

Being a woman in STEM, you must be resilient. You must be able to bounce back because you get so many random things thrown your way that men in STEM may not necessarily get thrown their way. 

If something's not a certain way, I do get a bit of anxiety about it and I'm trying to teach my kids to not have that and be resilient and be able to bounce back from those issues. Especially being a woman in STEM, you must be resilient. You must be able to bounce back because you get so many random things thrown your way that men in STEM may not necessarily get thrown their way. My mum said that when she went for a job interview, obviously they wouldn't do this now, but she got asked when she was having kids. This was only 30 something years ago, she was getting asked that so some of these people might still be in the workforce. So, there are things that get thrown your way that you just go, “oh my God, I have to bounce back from that. I can't burst into tears into a meeting because something happened.” You've got to be able to have that resilience.

Do you have any advice for women in STEM that are looking at starting a family?

Have an idea of what you want it to look like. I've got people in my team that work part-time and I've got people that work full time. So, you might not necessarily know that when you're pregnant, but have a think about what you want your family to look like when you return to work. When you have a family, do you want to go to work full time? Do you want to go Monday to Friday and do that? Or do you want to spend more time at home with kids? I always said I don't want to work more than two days a week. That's what I want to go back into, because I want to have the ability to do parent help at school and I want to be able to go to school assemblies without interrupting my work hours. 

Do what you want to do not what you think other people expect you to do!

Also, have a good idea of who is probably going to be the primary caregiver. My boss is the primary caregiver. His wife does a lot of flying and things like that with work so he's the primary caregiver in their family. So, it may not necessarily be the mum that will be the primary caregiver but have a good idea. My husband and I had a pretty good idea from day dot that I would be primary caregiver. He could earn more money than me. It came down to the fact that if I went back to work, he would earn more money than me because he can do overtime and he can do things like that, and I wanted to stay at home. I know plenty of women that are like, “Nope, get me out of here. I don't want to do this. I want to go back to work full time.” Just do what works for your family. 

Don't do what you think people are going to expect you to do. If you want to work full time, work full time, you'll make it work. You will do whatever needs to happen in your family to make it work because it's your family. But if you only want to work one day a week or want to be a stay-at-home mum, go for it. I've got women that I know that stayed out of the workforce for 10 years and then came back. It is difficult to do that, but if you want to do it, you'll make it work.

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