Throughout history, women and men have chosen careers that were either expected, inherited or simply all that were available to them. Choices were limited, particularly for women who were often guided into caring and nurturing roles such as nursing or teaching, while men were steered towards more physically taxing or technical endeavours.
Fast forward to the 21st Century, where UOW Outlook Magazine has spoken with three UOW alumni who are breaking down the gender stereotypes and injecting much-needed diversity into traditionally gender-dominated industries.
Attitude trumps gender
“I was the kid at school that always loved science, I had my rock collection for years, but never really put two and two together that was an actual career.”
When Amanda Crehan (pictured main image, courtesy of South32) finished high school, she had a clear plan. She would go to university, study science and become a science teacher in a local school.
After graduating from UOW with a degree in geology, she landed a job working on the rigs as a rig geologist while completing her diploma of education. From day one, she was hooked.
It wasn’t long before her love of mining was deeply embedded. She was offered a graduate geologist position with BHP Billiton which sent her on a new career trajectory into the world of mining.
“From day one in the grad position, I got exposure to not only the exploration rigs but the seismic acquisition and interpretation, so I sort of became a pseudo geophysicist overnight,” Crehan says.
Now, 15 years on, she is an Exploration Superintendent at mining company, South32, with Illawarra Metallurgical Coal. In charge of seven exploration rigs, she oversees the drilling in the coal fields of the Sydney basin, as well as seismic acquisition, which gives the structural knowledge and indications of faulting in the coal seam, and is the operational manager of the Cordeaux mine site.
Responsible for around 30 contractors and 15 staff, her drive to succeed and execute her role diligently and safely is clear, and there is no mistaking her passion for the job.
“I love delivering to plan through my high performing team, the pace, the problem solving. The moment someone comes to me with a problem, there’s always a solution.”
According to Crehan, being a female in what has been viewed traditionally as a male-dominated industry, has never hindered her ability to perform her role, deliver outcomes and grow professionally.
“For me as female in the industry I’ve definitely had lots of opportunity, that’s for sure. I guess the way I operate and who I am provides me platforms to get those opportunities. I’ve had things put in front of me that others may not. I wouldn’t say this is across the board [for all women], these opportunities have come up specifically due to my work ethic and drive.
“You’ve got to create your own destiny, you’ve got to create your own mindset.”
When it comes to how women are perceived by male co-workers, Crehan believes if you show up with a good attitude and you perform your role well, your gender is irrelevant.
“Everyone that I’ve met through the committees [diversity and inclusion] have been amazingly supportive of females within the industry. South32 is committed to creating an inclusive and diverse workplace, not just females or males, they’re supportive of having high performing teams where everyone can bring their whole selves to work and reflect the communities where we work,” she affirms.
This ambitious leader was named as a finalist in the NSW Women in Mining Awards in the Gender Diversity Champion category for her instrumental role supporting female colleagues at South32 to enter, remain and thrive in the industry.
“South32 knew that I was passionate about the inclusion and diversity space and supporting females within the industry, as such I was provided an opportunity to move into the Alignment Coordinator position at South32 Illawarra Metallurgical Coal, which incorporated the inclusion and diversity portfolio. I had the opportunity to draw on my experience and exposure to what works well and what can be improved in this space.”
While COVID-19 has presented its share of challenges, she created a female virtual network to discuss topics to support her female colleagues, whilst also developing a mentoring program to help women take the next step in their mining careers.
“For me it was three pillars to support and promote females at South32 Illawarra Metallurgical Coal, how do we build the pool, how do we retain them once they’re here and how do we make them into leaders of the future,” she explains.
Hungry for more challenges, she plans to complete her Company Director’s course with the intention of securing a board position one day. But for now, she’s content knowing she’s a role model to the next generation of women in mining.
“The most rewarding thing I would say is that my daughter is proud of her mum being in the mining industry. I would love for her to turn around one day and say ‘I want to be in the minestoo’ and know that processes are in place to support females to ensure that they excel within the industry.”
More than an educator
If anyone knows what it’s like to be immersed in contrasting gender-typical environments, it’s Kye Foster.
Having spent some of his early career working on the wharfs surrounded mostly by men, Foster went on to pursue a path less travelled by most young males, obtaining a Bachelor of Primary Education at UOW. It wasn’t long before he secured a teaching position at Koonawarra Public School in Dapto, where he soon found himself in the minority.
When asked why he chose this traditionally female-dominated occupation, Foster says it’s a question people pose reasonably regularly.
“At age 16 or 17, I was working at a surf school and was enjoying that euphoric moment when a kid or adult learnt to surf and I thought that might be something I can look into. So I committed to primary school teaching, got into the course and haven’t looked back since. I’ve loved every minute of it,” he shares.
It’s a choice many of his wharfie peers found hard to fathom.
“They were like ‘why would you want to do that’, it was very much considered women’s business, but I explained it makes me happy and is a lot more rewarding than standing underneath the crane,” Foster says.
As one of only five male teachers and teaching assistants on a staff of around 30 at his school, he admits there are times his gender impacts on his position and the way he is perceived.
“In teaching, where you interact with students and parents, your gender plays a huge role in how they interpret any action you make. In terms of discipline, if a female said the same thing as a male, kids respond differently and so would parents, so it can be tricky to navigate at times.
“Being Aboriginal and being a Gumbaynggirr, Yuin man, our culture’s always been very matriarchal, so I’ve always had that respect and understanding of women. I’ve had that understanding drilled into me by my mother who is a very strong woman. Sometimes you have to operate sensitively and imagine what it would be like the other way around,” he adds.
As a male in a female-dominated environment, Foster says the topic of gender equality is not typically on the agenda. Rather, the arguments tend to focus on equity for their students.
And while his school enjoys a very cohesive staff who are generally equitable, he highlights there are still a few assumptions made when it comes to class allocations.
“You do get treated differently. When you’re a male teacher, it’s expected you’re not that interested in the younger years because it’s the more nurturing side of teaching. Males generally do prefer the older years, but this can also be assumed.”
As Foster experienced on day two of his job at Koonawarra Public School, the role of male teachers goes beyond just reading, writing and arithmetic.
“I was on gate duty and two or three female parents came up to me and said: ‘I’m so glad you’ve chosen to work here because these kids live with just me and nan. They’re 10 years old and you’ll be the first male figure that they have in their life’.
“As a male in the teaching industry, I feel like you are often looked upon by a number of students as a father or uncle persona… which again can be tricky, but depending on how you manage it, can be a good thing.”
Answering the call to help
The desire to want to help our fellow humans requires a great deal of empathy and compassion – qualities Samuel Bryant has in spades.
The UOW nursing graduate found himself working in the Far West of New South Wales after doing his final clinical placement in 2018 in Dareton, 260km south of Broken Hill. He relished the opportunity to experience the contrasts working in rural health and decided to continue working in the remote region.
“I think just seeing the challenges faced in a rural environment compared to other placements I’d done in metro areas, and the amount of change in health you can directly influence, you get great firsthand experience.”
Bryant knows what it’s like to navigate life’s ups and downs, and has channelled this experience to specialise in mental health nursing.
“I went straight into mental health down south in Dareton, which has a small population – a large percentage being First Nations people. It was a great privilege to work there in that role.
“I think the life I’ve lived so far and the lived experience gained through adversities and achievements, fuelled a passion to step in and try to become a functioning professional helping other people who were experiencing that kind of suffering,” he shares.
Now a nurse at Broken Hill Hospital, and just two and a half years into his nursing career, Bryant has already made a strong impact in his field, awarded Nurse of the Year for the Far West Local Area Health District earlier this year.
And it’s not hard to see why he was selected for this honour. Humble as they come, Bryant explains that his concern for his patients doesn’t stop at the end of each shift.
“I do really enjoy my job and I do really care about the people that I care for, in a professional way. It’s not like I just walk away from work and forget or don’t have that empathy, it’s a very authentic care for the people, and I think that goes a long way.”
As the only male nurse at Broken Hill Hospital in his first year of employment there, he was thrown in the deep end while working in acute mental health care.
“Sometimes we would have someone who’s aggressive or requires more assertive care … I was being thrown into these situations and being asked ‘can you please manage this person’.
“I think while at times it was delegated as per my skill level, other times it appeared as though the influence of gender played a heavy role, which understood to an extent. The nature of working rural/remote is an additional influencing factor.
“I found I was given opportunities to step in and take charge in various situations. It meant that I got a lot of experience, but it also meant at times I was out in situations that I wasn’t well equipped to handle, I just had to sink or swim,” Bryant adds.
And swim he did, in more ways than one. While managing acute mental health patients with limited experience, Bryant also at times found himself having to manage more personal challenges as a male working in a traditionally more female-dominated environment.
“There can be quite miniscule comments such as being called ‘sister’, and I do recall when I was a student being labelled as ‘the prettiest girl in the room’ by a man with sensory deficits, with dismay to my female colleagues.”
As one of just two male nurses on a staff of 12, Bryant observes the gender ratios in nursing slowly changing as perceptions gradually shift.
“I see lots of males coming into the industry and working really well with it. I’m definitely seeing a big decrease in the stigma for men being able to care and men being empathetic, which is just a drawn-out stereotype that’s coming to an end,” he says. “There are pros and cons in every job, irrespective of industry, but the pros of being a male nurse far outweigh the cons.
“It’s coming to the point where, same as females entering male dominated industries, it’s required. Diversity’s important – each gender brings something to the job, and each individual within that."
Exploration Superintendent, South32
Bachelor of Science (Geology), 2004
Graduate Diploma in Education, 2005
Master of Business Administration, 2014
Teacher, Koonawarra Public School
Bachelor of Primary Education, 2019
Nurse, Far West Local Health District
Bachelor of Nursing, 2018