A path less taken for an engineering trailblazer

1 Jan 2014

Working at an electrical store by day while striving to earn her TAFE high school equivalency at night, Paula Tattam had little idea that just a few years later she would be an engineering trailblazer.

A third year student studying a Bachelor of Engineering at UQ, Paula is part of the University’s cutting-edge Women in Engineering (WiE) program that has resulted incoming female enrolments rising from 21.2 to 24.4 percent of the student cohort in the last 12 months, placing it well above state and national averages.

Women account for less than 13 percent of the engineering workforce in Australia, and Paula’s pathway to UQ was not a typical journey.

Having left school without finishing her senior year and working in hospitality, Paula envisaged her future without a Higher School Certificate, noting financial hardship and lack of options as a catalyst for change.

“It opened my eyes and made me think about what I wanted to do,” said Paula, a 2011 UQ Link Access scholarship recipient.

It was then that I realised I wanted more from life and that would only happen if I finished school and gave myself those options.”

Now less than a year away from graduating from a world top 100 university, Paula is gaining experience at engineering, management and specialist technical services consultancy Aurecon, and manages the Engineers Without Borders (EWB) High School Outreach program.

EWB educates high school students about humanitarian engineering as a profession, and important global challenges such as water and sanitation, construction and climate change.

“The humanitarian engineering workshops I am involved in focus on the less technical skills such as working directly with people in the community which can be attractive to women. There is a big focus in the workshops on how the benefits of our engineering skills can be applied within those communities," she said.

Paula said engineering appealed to her for reasons that are different from many of her male classmates.

“It wasn’t the technical side of engineering that appealed to me. A lot of people come into engineering because they are good at physics and maths, but that wasn’t the motivation for me. It came down to the job environment, job satisfaction and that the wide array of things I could do if I chose this course of study.

"I was working in sales in an electrical store so I talked to a lot of electrical engineers about our lighting products, what we could offer them and the benefits, and I really liked how project orientated their jobs were.

"It was busy, it was high pressure as well, and I really enjoyed it.”

UQ’s Women in Engineering Program is supported by engineering industry leaders Rio Tinto, the Australian Power Institute (API), and The Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association.

In 2013 the program directly engaged with over 1600 female high school students from 47 schools through on-campus and in-school engagement. It aims to inspire young women to consider engineering studies by highlighting the diversity of engineering and its role in tackling local and global challenges.

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