How can women get ahead? Take a break

By Megan Berger

Like many engineers, Sulo Shanmuganathan’s initial interest and draw to the field came from growing up with an engineering parent. Today, she’s the Technical Director at Holmes Consulting in Auckland, but there was a time when Sulo saw academia as her calling.

While her initial career goal was more focused on becoming a lecturer, Sulo realised that she’d need a bit more knowledge than her undergrad degree provided. So on she went to pursue her Masters and PhD, before working as a consultant to get more real-world experience. But as it turns out, the big projects (from Sydney’s Olympic Stadium to Auckland’s Britomart) kept her engaged and she’s never looked back.

“There is more to life than we just struggle for in our day-to-day lives.”

Over her 30 years in the industry, Sulo has taken a few career breaks, but not the kind you might assume. After working continuously for about 28-29 years, Sulo sought a change.  “I thought it would be really good to slow down a bit to understand what life would be like if you don’t work. I travelled a bit off the beaten path to places like Tibet, Nepal and India, and it was something I can’t describe in words,” says Sulo. “It’s kind of a feeling and realisation that life is not simply what we think it is, and that there’s more to that what you have in your career or in your family. There is more to life than we just struggle for in our day-to-day lives.”

Sulo found that her career breaks enabled her to come back and love her career even more, since, in her words, “Upon returning there is not the struggle anymore to achieve or to seek anything more than what you already have.”

A warm welcome

Having been through the process of coming and leaving an organisation, Sulo has a unique perspective on how to ensure other women still feel valued and welcome when they go on leave. “It’s important to make them feel they are still part of the team, so keep them involved and informed,” says Sulo. “Often people bring their little babies to work and have morning tea and coffee or go out to lunch, and I think it makes all the difference in making them feel included and involved while they’re away.”

Fighting for women

Of course, it’s just as important to support women while they’re in the office as when they’re taking a break. Perhaps the biggest area women need support in is when it comes to pay and negotiation. While Sulo is disappointed in the pay gap between men and women, she also sees a reason behind it. “Most of our life is all about negotiation, and I think women tend to be very good at looking after and negotiating for other people than they are for themselves,” says Sulo.  “Men on the other hand operate differently and can usually negotiate for themselves very well. Rather than expecting them to negotiate for themselves, there must be a mechanism for women to more easily navigate that task and get to pay parity.”

Standing up for women doesn’t just matter when it comes to addressing the pay gap, it matters in instances of harassment and abuse, too.

“In my experience dealing with these situations, I’ve always tried to act on behalf of the person who’s complained and give them all the options of how they can process,” says sulo. “It can be very difficult, especially when you’re young and in the beginning of your career to raise these issues and feel heard.”

Sulo’s advice for young people – men and women – who might be facing an issue like this? “It’s about finding a trusted person within your organisation –  it’s more effective than talking outside. Even if you haven’t got enough females there, you have to find the people that could support you.”

Setting targets

For Sulo, the importance of diversity comes down to something we’ve heard before: representing the world we live in and the people engineers and architects serve. “It’s important that our leadership is representative of the world we live in,” says Sulo. “Having more diverse leadership brings out the best in your team.”

“Once we reach those targets, it shouldn’t stop there.”

Adhering to a specific target number is one way Sulo thinks can bring change to the industry. To her, it’s biological. “It’s part of human nature to like rewards – it’s how we thrive and get satisfaction. But once we reach those targets, it shouldn’t stop there. It should go all the way to the true representation of the world which is 50/50. All the way.”

Sulo’s vision for the future of diversity in engineering is a positive one, rooted in the belief that even the smallest of actions has a vast impact on the greater good. “I think we as an industry are in a really good position to make a real difference. The benefits of a diversified workforce have been proven, and all of these new initiatives and goals set by organisations are making a huge difference collectively,” says Sulo.

Know yourself

Sulo’s message to young women looking to succeed in engineering is different from what you might expect. It’s not about relying on others to help you succeed, but knowing yourself first. “Understand yourself and what you want to achieve in your life, and then share that passion in helping to develop other people. It’s a fulfilling perspective to have, and I think it’s really time that more women come into the workforce doing that more.”

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