Mentoring women in STEM: I don't want girls to make the same mistakes I did

As we celebrate National Science Week, Women on Boards has a chat with WOB member Fiona Hall about being a female trailblazer in space engineering, renewable energy and mining. 

WOB member Fiona Hall admits  she has a cool job. With a background in space engineering, mining and renewable energy she has blown things up, sent things into space, and traveled underground.

As a leader in space engineering and mentor to women in engineering, ACT-based Fiona has developed projects to track space debris and asteroids for NASA and the Australian Government and worked as a hazardous and explosive area specialist and high voltage asset auditor for Defence.

Fiona had a love of electrical engineering at an early age and was inspired by her mother who was one of the first programmers for IBM. But, she tells Women on Boards, working in science wasn’t always seen as a ‘cool’ job when she was growing up in Germany and later studying Engineering at university in Darmstadt.

“When I would tell other girls what I was studying they’d pull a face and say ‘Ugh. I’d say, ‘Do you even know what I do?’ Other people would look me up and down and say, ‘but you don’t LOOK gay’. Which I found inappropriate on so many levels.”

But she is optimistic that this perception is changing. “Now when I tell young girls about my job, and that I studied electrical engineering, they say ‘wow that’s so cool.”

Fiona is now a Senior Manager with PwC and also a mentor for many women and young girls who want to pursue a career in STEM. “The main reason is I don’t want them to make the same mistakes I did when I was younger,” she said, referring to her first experiences working on a mine site.

“I thought I wanted to make friends in the workplace, so I would just go with the flow. We’d have 6 am meetings on-site and there would be men there reading porn. I said nothing, so then they’d start reading it out loud. I was trying to be ‘one of the guys’ but found myself trapped. It is so important to stand your ground and need to learn to put a stop to this behaviour.”

There are industry-wide efforts underway to eliminate sexual harassment in Australian mining workplaces, after the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Respect@Work: Sexual Harassment National Inquiry Report (2020) highlighted the alarming rate of sexual harassment in mining. But Fiona said unfortunately attitudes have not shifted much at ground level.

“The moment you go into some workshops it’s like stepping back into the 1970s. You know, calendars and showing naked women on the walls.”

She said the mining industry is still heavily male-dominated. “You don’t really see many girls and women wanting to enter the mining industry unless they have had a family member do it before, usually. Surprisingly the big mining trucks are a notable exception on site - with the rumour being that women are better drivers."

Another barrier to women progressing in STEM careers back when she started in 2005, she said, was the difficulty finding part-time and flexible working opportunities. This has become much less of an issue over the last five or so years, and once moving from engineering to management.

“Can you have a family and an engineering career? I found it very difficult to get any part-time roles. Just go on Seek and see what comes up when you search for ‘engineering’ and click ‘part-time’ - nada. It is much easier to apply for a full time position and the transition to part-time later.”

She said while COVID has offered up more opportunities to work from home for those at management level, she worries that being removed from the office environment makes it harder for career progression.

“If you opt to work from home, promotions are going to be harder to achieve”, she said.

Fiona is currently on the board of Lipoedema Australia and is now looking for her first paid board role on a tech board. “The not-for-profit board is a great stepping stone to the paid roles, and I think there are a lot of opportunities for someone with electrical engineering experience, especially in the energy and space sectors.”


HAVE YOUR SAY: Inquiry into sexual harassment against women in the FIFO mining industry

Written submissions are being invited from the public and participants to a parliamentary inquiry into sexual harassment against women in Western Australia’s fly-in, fly-out mining industry.

Western Australian Parliament’s Community Development and Justice Standing Committee launched the formal inquiry in July.

The committee will consider if there is a clear understanding of the prevalence, nature, outcomes and reporting of sexual harassment in FIFO workplaces.

It will look at if existing workplace characteristics and practices, including workplace culture, rosters, drug and alcohol policies and recruitment practices, adequately protect against sexual harassment. The inquiry will also ask if current legislation, regulations and policies are adequate and what actions are being taken by the industry.

Written submissions are being invited from the public and participants will be given the option to appear before the committee or keep all or part of submissions private, including keeping identities confidential. Submissions to the inquiry are due by August 6.

For more information click HERE


Take part in in-person and online events, virtual tours, DIY science and more, all across Australia until 22 August. Click HERE for more details.

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