Solving Problems at Scale

Article by Adam Duckett

Jane Cutler talks to Adam Duckett about her inspirations and quest for skills

AHEAD of International Women in Engineering Day (INWED, 23 June), I spoke to incoming IChemE President Jane Cutler, whose varied career has taken her across roles and sectors, including the mining industry, energy industry, superannuation organisations, and regulation.

The first question I asked is: what inspires you about engineering?

Cutler says she is worried it may sound trite, but the truth is she is inspired by solving problems and contributing on a large scale.

“You’re solving problems for your organisation and if you’re really fortunate you’re solving problems for your community, your city, your country, or some aspect of society more generally. That’s what inspires me.”

Asked about the achievements she is most proud of, Cutler points to her role as CEO of Australia’s offshore regulator, the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA). When she started the role it was NOPSA – she helped add the focus on environmental management.

“Taking the lessons from safety and applying them to environmental management: that’s tough because you’re making a cultural shift in the industry. So, I’m pretty proud of that.”

We discuss the hurdles she faced in her career. Cutler says she was stymied early in her career because remote locations had communal sleeping and washing facilities that were unsuitable for men and women to share. As a result, she was told: “we’re sending a man to do your job.”

She says that was very disconcerting. Management had not enabled her to do the full range of her work.

“They were being inclusive about employing females but not thinking ahead and planning to avoid assigning females to roles that were unable to be fulfilled in practice.”

“My hope is that gender shouldn’t be a barrier to you doing what you want to do. We just need to make sure that there aren’t unintended barriers to people following their aspirations and dreams…to embark on a career and a profession where they can make a useful and valuable contribution.”

With engineers now facing very challenging employment prospects, we discuss what lessons can be taken from Cutler’s career choices.

“I formed a view relatively early in my career about the range of skills that leaders of organisations in the future would need. So, my goal was to get experience in environment and safety, in community consultation and community engagement, in finance, in project management and understanding different disciplines and strategic planning.”

“I was quite thorough and comprehensive in my quest to build a range of skills.”

If she were taking her early steps again today, Cutler says beyond getting a good grip on the core technical skills, she would focus on life cycle analysis, process safety, and sustainability.

“I would certainly spend some time developing my knowledge and expertise on how chemical engineers can contribute and consider the UN Sustainable Development Goals in their day-to-day jobs.”

“I would be looking for opportunities to apply life cycle analysis but very holistically, not just around my operation or immediate process but more broadly on how it impacts on the environment and the community.”

While some organisations are not receptive to those terms, she says engineers can dress it up in other ways, for instance as cost and emissions reduction.

“If the environment is not right to use the language, you can still achieve the same outcome by putting it in very pragmatic business terms.”

Jane Cutler will become the 80th President of IChemE and deliver her Presidential address on 15 June. You can register to watch the event live here:

Article by Adam Duckett

Editor, The Chemical Engineer

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