A passionate engineer, Karen Andrews is proof that studying science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) can propel you along an exciting and varied career path.
This path has led to her current role as Assistant Minister for Science and Federal Member for McPherson in Queensland. The engineer in her, however, is omnipresent.
“I’m delighted that my role in politics takes me right into the engineering sphere,” Karen says. “I always enjoyed being an engineer, and quite frankly if I get the opportunity to introduce myself as an engineer or a politician, I will always go for engineer.”
Karen’s interest in engineering started early. “When I was eight years old I remember being absolutely fascinated by the washing machine,” says Karen, recounting a childhood memory, “and how the agitator turned the same amount in a clockwise and anti-clockwise direction every time.”
This curiosity of how things work drove Karen to study engineering at Queensland University of Technology (QUT), where, in 1983, she and a fellow student were the first two female graduates in mechanical engineering from the university.
According to Graduate Careers Australia, with women representing less than 9% of bachelor degree graduates in mechanical engineering in 2014, and the gender imbalance increasing as female participation in STEM wanes, there is still a dearth of women entering STEM.
As a trailblazer for women in engineering, Karen believes barriers to women entering STEM can be overcome.
“Some of the limitations are self-imposed,” Karen believes. “We should be making sure that as girls are going through the education system, they understand that every career choice is open to them. And with careers advisors too, we have to make sure there isn’t an unintentional gender bias in the advice that’s being given to women.”
After graduating, Karen cut her teeth working at power stations and petrochemical sites across Queensland and interstate. This was the mid-1980s, a time of significant industrial volatility in the Australian oil industry.
Karen’s supervisory role often meant receiving delegations from shop stewards; individuals elected by workers to represent them in dealings with management. “Shop stewards were pointing out to me the reasons why they couldn’t do the things I was asking them to do,” says Karen, as she described some of her early experiences in this demanding environment. “This encouraged me to go off and study industrial relations (IR). I was attracted to IR to see how I could make things better at the work place.”
As a natural communicator, Karen pursued her interests in IR joining the Chamber of Manufacturers as an industrial advocate in the Metals, Engineering and Construction industry.
“If you’re going to communicate, first and foremost you have to be a good listener,” explains Karen. “You have to listen to what people are saying to you in the first place before you can respond and work through a solution.”
With Karen’s communication skills honed in IR, and refined while running her own Human Resources and IR consultancy, Karen decided to pursue a long-held interest in politics. And with characteristic drive and determination she was elected for the seat of McPherson, southern Gold Coast in 2009.
“The adversarial parts of IR are similar to the adversarial parts of politics, says Karen. “In IR you are working closely with employers and employees trying to achieve an outcome that’s in the best interests of that business. The same thing applies in politics, but on a larger scale because you’re looking at what is in the best interests of Australia.”
Karen’s engineering background and career path afford her a unique perspective on the potential future for STEM in Australia.
“I think there will be exciting new careers in analysing big data,” says Karen. “So we’ll need people who are going to be able to analyse that data and turn it into usable information. So I think there will be plenty of opportunities for data analysts and people with higher maths skills.”
“There will also be lots of opportunities in the coming years in astronomy, and particularly is marine sciences where we are already world-leaders,” says Karen.
– Carl Williams