Irene Kaur – a much needed Kiwi role model for STEM industries

Growing up Kiwi electrical engineer Irene Kaur wished she saw more female role models within the engineering industry. She hopes that she will inspire others to try this more traditionally male dominated path.

Part of the attraction that is needed is to create a culture and ethos that are welcoming to women, and although Kaur is breaking new ground, she doesn’t see herself as knocking down barriers for women when she goes to work.

Her role involves occasionally leading training sessions where often she is the only woman in the room – but she says it doesn’t faze her.

“I represent myself how I would want somebody to train me. I don’t get nervous, I am there to do a job. It’s about delivering technical knowledge, and from my perspective gender shouldn’t come into it.”

She admits even in today’s modern society sometimes not everyone is completely receptive to having a female leading from the front in the industry. However, she approaches it from a classroom point of view; where everyone is equal and you wipe gender completely out of the equation”

Kaur’s background is in manufacturing, consulting and product design. The electrical field appealed to her (as opposed to civil and mechanical engineering) because it is a more conceptual and less visible science, with many streams for professional expansion including software engineering. She was the type of child that took household appliances apart to try and put it back together. She has since broadened her reach into various portfolios for the global Schneider Electric brand, including motor control, power solutions, EV chargers, and also has responsibility for product development, consultation and marketing, given the highly specialised nature of the products.

“Looking at engineering as a field, men have always dominated and been the role models, from mechanical to electrical to civil and right up into the big tech companies. There haven’t been many women at the forefront, and critically, not much promotion of women either. We need to promote our female engineers so there are more role models for girls and young women to look up to and aspire to. I didn’t see another female engineer who was right at the top of the field and talking about technology, and we need that to inspire kids and show them that women belong in the profession and are capable, and to continue to change and challenge bias – whether conscious or unconscious.”

She says, “There aren’t a lot of females in the engineering world, that’s the truth of it. There is a lot of work still to ensure that as an industry engineering ensures it opens its doors to more flexibility and diversity. Let’s change the narrative. It’s not about being anti-men, or pro-female, it’s about engineering being open to all people from all walks of life and experiences.”

She advises young women in STEM to look for work cultures that actively give equal opportunities to all genders.

The STEM movement – now active in education sectors in many countries – is designed to attract more girls and women to fields that have traditionally been defined and dominated by men. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics have in the past had a lack of appeal to females as a career opportunity, due to it being seen as a male-dominated field, lack of awareness and promotion as a viable career opportunity for woman. As of today, the percentage of female graduates in electrical engineering at the University of Auckland shows the imbalance still remains persistent, making up only 29% in 2021.

“One of the biggest issues in our industry is that the company culture is incredibly tough on women, there is still stereotyping. Schneider is really good at stopping that from happening; women have a voice and a strong leadership team. My advice to any woman going for an interview for an engineering role is to ask the questions straight: How are female engineers treated in this organisation? What are the core values of your company? You have a choice to change the system, to look for a firm that accepts you and is open to actively developing and supporting female engineers to success.”

In light of the clear inequity, many organisations are taking it upon themselves to look at how they can better support females and diversity in the workplace, including looking at key initiatives like flexibility, equal opportunities, ongoing training and support Schneider Electric has been named as one of the 25 companies engineering students most want to work for, based on a global survey (conducted September 2020 to May 2021) by Universum of 84,000 students from 10 of the world’s biggest economies.

Schneider’s inclusive work policies support gender equity by helping employees to better manage their work and personal lives – for example, through flexible work or providing family, care and bereavement paid leave. Schneider also seeks to ensure equal pay across comparable groups of employees and reduce the pay gap between women and men to less than 1% by 2025.