Improving Opportunities for Women in Engineering - Felicity Furey
Interview from August 2020
This article features a real life “Superstar of STEM” – She is an inspirational leader, award winning speaker and one of my personal engineering role models, Felicity Furey!
Felicity has won a multitude of awards including:
- Science and Technology Australia Superstars of STEM
- Innovative Engineer of 2018 Engineers Australia
- Young Executive of the Year 2016 Australian Financial Review BOSS Magazine
- Vice Chancellor's Award for Excellence Winner 2014 QUT
- Young Achiever Award 2013 National Association of Women in Construction
- Finalist Outstanding Alumni Awards 2013 QUT
- Young Social Pioneer 2013 Foundation for Young Australians
- 100 Women of Influence 2012
From BOSS Magazine’s Young Executive of The Year to being one of Westpac AFR’s 100 Women of Influence and the Director of four multi-million dollar businesses, Felicity has made a career out of making the ‘impossible’ possible!
She has led some of Australia’s most innovative mega infrastructure projects delivering a $45 million dollar transport infrastructure project portfolio by the time she was just 23 years old!
One of just twelve women in her graduating class of 120, she is committed to fueling diversity across all industries by equipping current and emerging leaders from all backgrounds with the skills and tools to make an impact. Her two businesses, Power of Engineering Inc. and Machinam along with exclusive partnerships with Qantas, Boeing, Toyota, Telstra, Origin and Energy Australia power her mission to help more people ignite their potential and spark meaningful change.
You can read more about Felicity's work and sign up for her upcoming Millennial Leadership Program at her website https://www.felicityfurey.com/
Read more to learn how Felicity has achieved so much in such a short time frame and how she is now adding "mum" to her impressive list of achievements.
NOTE: Felicity conducted this interview while wearing her 12-week-old son who slept soundly for most of the interview, now THAT is a powerful woman!
"So, I had to really discover what it was like being a leader throughout the process and it kind of was the making of me, I guess, in making so many mistakes and figuring it out along the way."
You have achieved an absolutely amazing career in a really short time. I would love to firstly know what it was that got you interested in engineering in the first place. Was there a particular person or experience that made you decide to be an engineer?
Well, engineering is not anything I ever thought about growing up. I'd never heard of the word engineer until I was probably in my final year of school, and I was looking at what I want to do when I finish. There are no engineers in my family. I actually wanted to be an artist when I finished school, because I would describe myself as someone who is really creative.
It was actually my physics teacher who suggested engineering and I really thought it was people just sat down and did maths all day and did calculations and thought it would be actually a really boring career until I learned what it actually is. I'm a civil engineer. So, for me, engineering is building the world around me, creating the built environment. All engineers really make things for people and get to make this amazing difference and I wish that would have been how it was described when I was growing up.
Jessica: Yes, I certainly agree with you on that. When I was in high school and thought of an engineer, I always pictured an old man kind of in an office, calculating things and it didn't sound like it would be very interesting. It kind of sounded like it'd be a bit boring, but now that I am a civil engineer, it's incredible! You actually make this big difference to the community. The difference that you get to make and the amount of creativity that you get to put into your work as well. Like you said, you wanted to be an artist and I'm sure you're still getting your fix of artistry doing engineering.
Felicity: Absolutely. I had no idea that it was something that was really creative and I think that's another myth out there for young people about a career in engineering. I love being creative and solving problems.
You've been fairly open with the fact that maths is not your forte and that you actually failed maths in uni. I also failed physics in my first year. Failing a subject can really take its toll on your motivation to finish uni. What advice would you have for anyone who is struggling a bit?
Yeah. My first day was really challenging. I did maths B in Queensland, so I didn't do the top maths, Math C, and I also failed the math test in my final year of school in year 12 and then found it at uni.
I just felt like, “oh my gosh, I'm going to have to work so hard just to be as good as everybody else.”
What actually changed for me was two things.
One was a friend said, “just stick with it. It gets way more practical after your first year.” And it actually did. And the changes on the universities now have got more practical approach in first year, which is great.
The second thing was really understanding why I was there and I think that's important for anyone wanting to achieve a goal. What is your “why” that sits behind it? For me, I realized that engineering is for people and I could actually make a really big difference in the world by having this degree.
So, I thought, “okay, it might be really hard but I might have to just learn this math!” which I did. I just sat there and wrote it out again and again and again for hours. It was so boring, but I knew that if I did that and I did the work, I'd be able to get the degree. I think I just passed maths when I repeated it.
I think I failed materials engineering as well. So, it was something that didn't come easy for me and getting through the degree was quite hard, but because I had that reason and that “why” that really motivated me to work on.
Yeah. That's great advice. And it rains so true with me as well. Like I said, I failed physics A and I was similar, I didn't do physics in high school. So, like you said, you didn't do the hard maths, well I didn't do physics, so that possibly played a part in me failing physics A in my first year. Then when I redid it, I only just passed, but “Ps get degrees” so I was happy with that. I agree with your advice about having that end goal in your focus rather than getting bogged down in the nitty gritty of what you're doing right now. Keep your focus on that end goal.
This one might be a bit of a hard question to answer, but how is it that you've managed to achieve so much in your career in such a short amount of time? Is there anything that you would suggest to other women that might help them succeed in their own career?
It's funny. I never kind of set out to have the things that I've done happen. It kind of started because I wanted to create a change in the industry and I think deep down, I always wanted to be a leader and I had no idea how I would get there.
I thought it would be something that I would do when I had decades of experience, maybe with a great title, like manager or something like that. This journey started because I just got sick of writing reports about getting more women into engineering and I just thought there's got to be something I can do.
I think it sort of started off as a bit of an anger and frustration that there weren't as many women as I would like in the industry and that led to realizing that “wow, because we don't have women in the profession, then we are having bias design.” We're having designs that are focused more on the majority.
For example, the seatbelt design is less safe for women, even things like vaccines are actually based on male physiology rather than females. So, the flu vaccine, a women will have a more adverse reaction than a man. That kind of then fueled my inspiration to keep going and keep achieving things.
So, it really started out as wanting to contribute and make a difference and I think that naivety and that open-mindedness actually really helped me achieve more in my career because I just was so passionate about making something happen and then one thing led to the next, and then next thing after one event we've started a not-for-profit organization and I think there was a real need for it to happen so we were able to get really great interest from industry and people wanted to get on board.
So, it really grew from there and I just found myself in this leadership role of the organization. I completely screwed it up. Many times. We had at one point, all our volunteers quit except for me and my co-founder. The company that had given us money for three years said, we're only going to give it to you for two. There was some really challenging times, so I had to discover what it was like being a leader throughout the process. It was kind of the making of me, I guess. I'm making so many mistakes and figuring it out along the way.
Yeah, that's great. It sounds like the main thing that any person would need to really succeed is to have a passion. You said that you had that passion to make a difference, if you've got that passion to really do something, whether it's to make a difference, or if it's to just contribute to your community, then you're more likely to succeed because at least you're enjoying what you're doing and you're really interested in what you do.
You spoke about being a leader and working out your leadership style, I saw on LinkedIn that you have a millennial leadership program coming up. Would you like to tell me a little about it?
I'd love to. I've been really focused for a while on attracting young women into the profession and starting off with the school.
I think that's important to really get women into the industry, but I think there's also a gap on the other side. So once women are in the industry, then what happens when we're there? How can we foster leadership and enable people to be the leaders that they want to be?
For many women it might seem like it's a real slog and there aren't that many shortcuts. So, I really want to help women fast track themselves. Instead of being the corporate ladder, I'm talking about taking the corporate lift to the top. It's accelerating and fast-tracking women's leadership and really enabling people to find their voice at work.
Not just understanding their strengths but understanding their value so that they can position themselves in the best way possible so they can get the opportunities they really want and be their best selves at work and be recognized and heard for their value rather than what I often found was I was not communicating my value well, and I didn't get the opportunities that I wanted and I think my career really suffered because of that. It was a tough slog.
Your businesses, Power of Engineering and Machinam, aim to inspire young people and empower young women to pursue careers in STEM. I'd love to hear more about these businesses. What prompted you to start them, how they've grown and what might be on the horizon for them in the future?
It started up because I wanted to have more conversations around engineering with young people. I thought I had an amazing teacher who told me about engineering but maybe there aren’t other people out there who have a teacher like him. So, I thought let's talk more about it. Let's get more women into engineering and let's make it happen.
I didn't expect it to grow into the organization that it did. We've now run over 130 events across Australia. 10,000 people have been through the program, and we've done it in 50% of regional areas, which I think is really important to engage the wider community, not just in the cities as well. It's been an incredible journey learning how to start a business.
I'd never thought I would start a business ever, but I've now handed over the leadership of Power of Engineering, which I think is important and exciting. We've got an amazing team of engineers who are running it and they are leaders themselves and it's actually shown that we can have more ideas and better ideas than me and my co-founder, Jillian Kenny, had in the beginning which is really exciting.
That first business led on to the next one which is Machinam where we create real world resources for students in high school. The first event program was free one day events for girls and regional students in year 9 and 10 to kind of spark that interest and then we looked at how can we have a longer-term impact?
The engineer in me, the problem-solver, thought “cool, here’s one problem sparking the interest. Okay. Next problem. How do we keep it ongoing?” So, real world math scenarios in classrooms around Australia, we've worked with over 30 schools and the idea is that we get that real-world problem-solving approach into the classroom, map it to the curriculum, so students are understanding why they're learning maths, because I think that's a really big gap in education and that they go, “oh, that's why I'm learning it. Maybe I could use it in being an engineer” so that they’re not missing out on the critical thinking that they're going to get from doing maths at school. The idea is to engage them and motivate them to study maths further in high school and hopefully lead into STEM careers.
I remember thinking during a maths class “when am I even going to use this? I'm never going to use this again. I've just got a calculator in my pocket anyway, because I've got a phone.” But now that I'm an engineer, I use that stuff every day. Literally every single day I will use that maths that I said, oh, I'm never going to use this again.
Right? I just thought it was totally useless. I was like, “graphs, algebra. What's this about?” And then I became an engineer and went, “oh, damn it. I wish I'd learnt about that.” So, I think by having those connections for students, it will really inspire and give that “why” for them and motivating them.
You were talking about how you started these businesses to spark an interest in young people, now that you have a young child of your own, have you ever thought about maybe targeting even younger groups of people? There are some studies that show that engaging young children in STEM, in primary school or even younger is a really great way to get them engaged early and remain engaged so they might take up more of those opportunities in high school. Have you thought about maybe doing anything younger or is that not quite yet?
I would love to. I've thought about it a lot actually. That's something that we looked at when we started Power of Engineering, we focused on year 9 and 10 students, and I think that was actually a very good and strategic approach to just do one thing really well.
We focused on that for a good 5 to 8 years and now the Power of Engineering team is looking at how can we go younger to primary school and even younger than that. I think it's important in this space that there are organizations that are doing that and how can we collaborate with them rather than trying to do everything for everybody.
It is something I get asked a lot is, could we go down to your younger year levels and I think absolutely. But I think there's the right time for that as well. So, for me personally, having a 12-week-old baby, I am thinking about his development, how do I create things like the spatial awareness, creativity, problem solving, etc.
Even little things like, I just want to be with him all the time. I don't want to leave him alone. I feel bad leaving him alone, but actually I learnt that by giving him his own space, even from this young age, it actually will promote creativity and him getting bored is a good thing because he has to figure out how to entertain himself.
It'll definitely influence my parenting and I would love to do more programs for younger kids, even right down to that kindergarten and prep age groups. So maybe that'll be my next project after the millennial leadership, I'll go into the corporate world and then completely flip it and go down the other end.
I’ve been told by an early childhood educator in South Australia who took part in a STEM in early childhood program that it’s all about learning dispositions. You didn't really have to change anything you were doing. It was just about explaining the why. So, like you said, in high school, giving these kids a reason why they're doing maths, it's the same thing in early childhood.
If they're cooking, you could say, “oh, look at you being like a scientist, measuring out milk or something like that.” Explaining to them why a cake goes from being a liquid and a solid, being milk and flour, then mixing it together and it becomes like a semi-solid and then cooking it and it rises and becomes solid again.
Explaining why things are happening to give them that real interest in how science impacts the world and then that can fuel their engagement through primary school and into high school.
That's a good point because we are actually doing engineering and science every single day. Whether it's making your morning coffee or turning on the tap. Asking how do you know that the water safe to drink? Let's go to see, taste and smell. That’s a scientific approach to something that you do subconsciously but if the water wasn't that way you would know about it, and you wouldn't actually drink the water.
It's something that we use every day, that scientific and engineering approach but we might not think about it in that way or use that language. I know as an engineer, I'm always looking at a building that I walk in like, “oh, there's the column, there's this, that's how the structure works” which I know not everybody was thinking of because they might not have that engineering background, but I'm sure lots of engineers think about that in their own profession and giving that language. So, for students, it's really powerful for them to actually see that world.
You said you've got a 12-week-old son and being so accomplished I'd assume you'd have a fairly busy life. How have you helped to balance your career with your growing family needs?
It's a good question. Having a child has definitely changed my perspective on what do I want to spend my time on or what do I want to focus on and to begin with I took myself on to say, I'm going to have a three month break and do nothing, which did not quite last the three months, because I was already thinking of ideas and the leadership program is something I've been wanting to do for a long time so I decided to finally stop and launch it, but it's definitely helped me be more present.
I'd heard in the past, that you can be more productive when you have your family. For example, right now while he's sleeping I've got 30 minutes to an hour, go go go. I wouldn't recommend that approach and not saying that people should be doing that but that's what's worked for me and it's had me be so prioritized and so focused.
For example, I might have an hour to myself, what's the most important thing that I can do? Sometimes that is actually sleeping and going for a walk and things like that. So, it's had me really think about what do I need to do first?
I've actually got a poster on my wall that I can see from here, which says, number one thing, happiness is an inside job. That's something me and my husband have talked about a lot. We need to be happy individually. We need to be happy as a couple. Then comes our son, and I would think, oh no, we should put him first before anything else, but if I'm not happy, he's not going to be happy and I've certainly seen that throughout the day, where if I'm tired or frustrated, then that can show up in him as well. It's had me really take care of myself which is something I have definitely not done in the past. I would say I work a lot, so it's had me re-prioritize and focus on what's really important.
Has having a child changed the way you think or influence your decisions at all? For example, when I had my daughter, my passion for advocating women in STEAM went through the roof just because I wanted to make sure she had all of the opportunities that I didn't have.
I did think if I had a girl, then I would know a bit more what to do, but I have not had a girl. I have a boy. I'm like, if I have a girl, she’s just going to be this amazing, powerful woman and I didn't know what I was having before we had our son, Winston, then I was like, “oh, it's a boy, ok.”
My husband's amazing. I would say he has taught me a lot about his emotions, and I think that there's stereotypes for men as well as women and that's one of them around how emotional can a guy be. I think my husband's incredible with that and he teaches me so much about it.
I think, it's definitely around identifying those stereotypes, what are those automatic things come to mind? Like right now he's wearing a dinosaur onesie. I loved dinosaurs growing up and even just those little things like my friend, who's also an engineer, she's got a two-year-old boy, she told me that one morning, she watched her son playing, singing a song to his doll and singing twinkle, twinkle little star and putting the doll to bed, and I just thought, “oh my gosh, I've never thought to get my son a doll. I really need to do that. That will definitely be on the to-do list.”
It's just amazing how I have done so much work in gender diversity and e quality and then there's still those automatic brain patterns. So, I think I've got to consciously choose “okay that’s stereotypical, is that maybe making an assumption?” I even said to my husband, “oh, I've got a boy. I feel like we're going to be so adventurous, and they'll do all these outside things.” As if it wouldn’t do that if it was a girl. It's definitely had me question a lot of things that was just so automatic and for someone who I feel like I've done so much thinking about diversity and equality, that I'm like, “whoa, it's still right there.” I think there's such strong programming from society and talk with those thoughts and ideas.
You just mentioned that your husband's amazing. One of the three fun facts about you is “my husband is a legend.” I love successful love stories. I'm in one, my husband is also a legend, but I'd love to hear a bit about your husband and what makes him legendary and how he has helped support you through your career and into parenthood.
Great question. I think, I've gone to a few events as a young engineer and heard women the partner you choose is really important and it's not just about that relationship, it's also about the rest of your life. That's something that really stood out for me and I kind of thought, “oh yeah, that's great but where am I going to find a guy that is like all these things I want him to be?”
I think starting a not-for-profit and spending so much time outside of work, working on my business was quite demanding and is quite intense. There's probably a lot of intense things about my personality and I wanted to find someone who was a match for that, who really understood what I was talking about. I thought, “oh, that'd be really cool if I was with someone who had started a not-for-profit” but then I thought that's a pretty extreme thing.
I also really wanted to be with someone who really empowered me as a leader and basically didn’t take my crap or whatever. That was important because I wanted someone who could empower me and actually remind me that I'm a leader which is a pretty big ask, because again, I can be quite intense.
So, I went to this party with my friend and a mutual friend and started talking to this guy that my friend had told me about it before and within 20 minutes, I was like, “this is the guy.” The next day he said, “I told my parents, I found the woman I'm going to marry.” I was like, “oh my gosh, that's crazy.” And then within seven months we were engaged, and we've been happily married for over five years now.
Yes, he had started a not-for-profit, in climate change and renewable energy, getting solar systems in some really remote places in Africa. He doesn't take my crap, he really empowers me to be a leader and that is challenging for me to have that person say that, but it's also really powerful and I think really important thing for me. So, that's why he's amazing. He's such an incredible leader, starting his own businesses and we have these awesome conversations where I tell him what I really want to achieve and accomplish and he really holds me to that, which sometimes can be frustrating, but also, it's really amazing and that's what I really want.
So, great advice from this woman who worked Virgin Australia I met at this event that I went to who said your partner is such an important choice for your whole life and I really believe that choosing the right person can really empower you to reach your goals.
Is there anything else you'd like to add before we finish?
No, this has been super fun, thank you so much. I've really enjoyed the conversation and congratulations on your leadership in putting this together and I know it's going to make a big difference for so many women.
It's a question that I really had was, how am I going to balance that career and family? It was something that I really wasn't sure how to navigate, so I think your interviews with women will be really powerful for all the women. So, thanks for the opportunity to share my story and talk about some of the things that I'm passionate about.