Dr Marlene Kanga, president-elect for the World Federation of Engineering Organisations, on the career she chose, on motherhood, and why she truly believes there is a lot of potential especially among second generation Indian Australians
The second Sunday of the month of May is celebrated as Mother’s Day. It is a day that celebrates motherhood and all aspects of being a mother. It is a day to recognise the influence of mothers in the society. This year I would like to talk about an amazing woman, who is a loving mother but most important of all an extremely successful engineer and leader.
It is tough being a woman in a man’s world and it is tougher to make a mark. There are few women who have done so and have done it with conviction. Dr Marlene Kanga is one such woman. The President-elect for the World Federation of Engineering Organisations (WFEO), an apex body for engineering institutions internationally with nearly 20 million engineers from over 90 national institutions and 10 regional and international institutions under its umbrella, Dr Kanga is an alumnus of IIT Bombay and completed a Master’s degree at the Imperial College London with a PhD from Macquarie University.
A chemical engineer, she has the honour of being an Honorary Fellow of both the Institution of Engineers Australia and of the Institution of Chemical Engineers (UK), the only woman in Australia to achieve this dual distinction. She is also a Fellow of the engineering institutions of New Zealand and India, the Academy of Technology Science and Engineering (Australia) and the Australian Institute of Company Directors. Dr Kanga was listed among the Top 100 Women of Influence in Australia in 2013 and the Top 100 Engineers in Australia in 2013, 2014 and 2015.She was the Federation of Engineering Institutions in Asia and the Pacific 2014 Professional Engineer of the year, the first woman to be so recognised. And in 2014, she became a Member of the Order of Australia in the Queen’s birthday Honours List for being a leader and a role model. I had the privilege of hearing her speak at the International Woman’s Day forum. Her humility compounds her knowledge and achievements and her speech left me spell bound and I had so much to ask her.
Dr Marlene Kanga was born in a family who were trendsetters and hence grew up with several role models around her. Her grandfather who was a magistrate later became a barrister in London and received the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for his work. Her father was of the one first engineers in India who led many large projects—building the infrastructure of post-independence India. So, it is no surprise that she has become such an accomplished engineer herself!! Dr Kanga says that her mother was a school teacher who enthused “a sense of empowerment and confidence”. It is from her family that she learnt that “leadership is a privilege and should be used to serve”.
“I am passionate about engineering and communicating the huge contributions that engineers make to the economy and to society. Engineers have made the modern world—from clean running water and sanitation, to all forms of transport, to the manufacture of medicines and the processing of foods,” says Dr Kanga.
She says she chose to become an engineer as she is a very practical person. And it is only after she entered the field that she realised there are very few women engineers. Even in Australia, women engineers were a rarity 25 years ago. In fact, she was the second woman engineer to be hired by Esso, Australia! This has been a challenge for her right from her University days. While she was the only woman in her class and even at the WFEO, she is one of a very small number of women. “But I am used to it and just get on with the job. However, it has to be an excellent job, mistakes are remembered for a long time,” she interjects. Dr Kanga believes that the Indian diaspora has significant and unique value to Australia, “in terms of our cultural familiarity, our intellectual capacity especially in science, technology and engineering, our business and family networks and our ability to take risk”. These factors she says are “critical for Australia’s engagement with Asia to develop business and entrepreneurship and for innovation”.
As an Indian Australian in this multicultural society she would like other Indian Australians to be proud of their heritage and of what they can contribute to Australia. It is her contention that “there is a lot of potential especially among second generation Indian Australians, I am sure that they will be very successful in future”.
When asked about the biggest challenge faced by the Indian Australians as far as employment and technology goes, Dr Kanga remarked that since globally there is a shortage of people with skills in science, engineering, and technology the demand for people with these skills will continue to grow as new technologies and innovations emerge. People should not shy away from these disciplines due to the initial struggles they may pose. In the US, many of the leading companies have US-Indians at the helm and while 20 percent of engineers in Silicon Valley are from India, Indians have started 20 percent of tech start-ups.
There is no reason, according to Dr Kanga why Indian Australians can not to be equally successful. Indians here or there have the same skills and drive. “We need to dream big and have confidence in our capabilities,” she smiles. “It’s time for Indian Australians to step up to leadership roles in business, technology entrepreneurship, academia and politics with confidence. We need to challenge the stereotypes that are seen in the mainstream media. We are starting to see this happen in universities and there has been a few great business and entrepreneurial successes. But we need more. It is sheer numbers that will provide the role models to show the way and enable the community to break through the ‘grass’ ceiling. We need to do this for ourselves, our families and for Australia.”
As the President of the World Federation of Engineering Organisations, she says she will have two years to engage with leaders around the world on various issues relating to engineering. Her priority is to build capacity in engineering in developing countries, to ensure that universities meet the required standards for engineering education and that there are opportunities for professional development of engineers. She knows all too well the challenges facing women in her industry and so she will also be advocating for greater diversity in engineering—with more participation by women and indigenous people. Dr Kanga is also leading the World Engineers Convention which is held every four years and is an ‘Olympics of Engineering’. “This will be held in Melbourne in November 2019 when I am also President of the World Federation which will hold its General Assembly—a UN of engineering at the same event. The year 2019 is the centenary of Engineers Australia so it’s going to be a huge celebration of engineering,” she quips enthusiastically.
A woman, not matter what her career and position is also a mother. And being a working mom is like a steeple chase—there are obstacles ranging from scheduling nightmares and extreme exhaustion to the great juggle between home and work. To Dr Kanga her children are a constant source of amazement and joy. She says that she somehow muddled through motherhood and she is proud that her sons have turned out to be “the most inspiring, wonderful young men”. She draws satisfaction from simple things in life that money cannot buy. She says she values time, friendship, and family more than anything else. She considers herself to be very fortunate as she has a “loving and supportive family and to have a career that allows me to contribute to engineering a better world”.
Being a woman in a man’s world may have become increasingly common, but not easier. As Dr Kanga believes, all we have to do is follow the path shown with our own confidence and capabilities.