Meet Maharti: using a PhD to advance careers in female engineers

Maharti Triharta decided to do a Master of Environmental Engineering after taking a career break to trek around the world. Witnessing retreating glaciers, waste issues in Everest and bad droughts she decided to change careers.

Returning to study engineering gave me hope that I could transform my career and gain a broader perspective that I don’t think could have happened if I’d stayed in my previous industry and role. I’m now completing a PhD with the Melbourne Society Equity Institute and Faculty of Engineering and IT where I’m researching a topic close to my heart – the representation of women in STEM and how in-born biological reproductive systems are impacting career development of female engineers.

Prior to studying I was average in terms of environmental consciousness. I recycled my waste as per the types of bins available, but I did not think much of where the waste would go after the bin or the circularity of it.

Throughout the Master of Environmental Engineering degree, I learnt the concept of sustainability. While I knew the meaning of this word before, I didn’t understand how it could be applied to our everyday lives. Sustainability doesn’t just have to be about a particular project or business idea, it’s a concept that can be applied on any aspect of life. I realised I did not have a sustainable life before when I was working as an expatriate female engineer nor through the career development path I had been following. I hadn’t planned to go on to do a PhD until I saw the announcement from MSEI and FEIT for PhD scholarship opportunities in social equity and really think this can be an interesting research topic.

My masters led me to a role tutoring with the Department of Infrastructure Engineering in subjects on Solid Waste to Sustainable Resources and Energy Efficiency. This gave me the time and opportunity to think of a research topic I am passionate about. The decision to complete a PhD means I can bring my experience working in the industry and hopefully generate concepts that bring possibilities for female engineers to have sustainable careers throughout the course of their professional life.

I’m fascinated by how engineering and technology can be transferred between industries and professions. I know of several of the teaching professionals in the University who’ve managed to navigate and transform their expertise (and careers) from one area to the next. This inspires me for a career I know could take me anywhere and give me opportunities to follow my interests. My PhD is the combination of my professional, industry expertise and a passion for women in STEM.

From my observation working in the field, there are high attrition rates for female engineers around their mid-30s compared to their male counterparts. Is the female biological reproductive system playing a part? Human reproductive systems are born unequal between the two sexes. Males can be considered to have infinite seed reserves during their productive professional ages, whereas female reproductive reserves start expiring in the middle of this professional development period. My PhD gives me the chance to discuss how the biological reproductive inequalities can be recognised and openly addressed at all levels. This will help to create a sustainable pathway for female engineers’ career development. While I don’t have all the answers in my PhD, this project gives me the chance to explore research in a way that relates to my experience in the industry while hopefully making a difference.

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