Marlene Kanga’s call to action is simple: If you want to change the world, become an engineer.
In an extraordinary recognition of her entrepreneurship, advocacy for women in STEM and leadership at some of the largest engineering and technology organisations, Dr Kanga has been appointed Officer of the Order of Australia (AO).
Significantly, there were no female engineers who received an AO between 2017 to 2021.
“Less than 40 percent of Australian honours are made to women and an even smaller percentage to engineers and to Indian-Australians,” explained Kanga, who is passionate and outspoken about all three important aspects of her identity.
“This recognition is very important, especially as a role model for young people and for women and girls, to consider engineering as a career that makes a positive difference for our world. It is also important for Australia, to recognise the important contributions that overseas-born Australians can and are making, she added.
“Our economic future and wellbeing depend on making the best use of all of Australia’s talents and intellect and to enable an environment where everyone can be the best they can be. Especially in engineering and technology, Australian engineers can lead with the implementation of solutions to address climate change, the energy transition, and the more efficient use of our mineral resources,” Kanga explained.
An alumnus of IIT Bombay and Imperial College London and recipient of Member of Order of Australia (2014), some of the highlights of her glittering career include becoming chair of National Committee for Women in Engineering, National President of Engineers Australia, Fellow of Engineering New Zealand, Institution of Engineers India and Australian Institute of Company Directors as well as Foreign Fellow of ASEAN Academy of Engineering and Technology, the first Australian engineer in this Academy. In 2019, she won both the CHEMECA Medal, awarded jointly by the Institution of Chemical Engineers (UK), Engineers Australia, Engineering NZ and Royal Australian Chemical Institute, and the Institution of Engineers India Centenary Award.
She has previously been recognised as Federation of Engineering Institutions in Asia and the Pacific (FEIAP) Professional Engineer of the Year, the first Australian and woman to be given this honour.
Amongst the organisations in which she holds or has held leadership roles, there are government, private as well as not-for profit labels, including the World Federation of Engineering Organisations, International Network for Women Engineers and Scientists, International Science Council, Institution of Chemical Engineers (UK), and the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering.
On 9 June 2022, she was named one of the first foundation Fellows of the International Science Council, with members of the world’s scientific unions and academies, in recognition of her “remarkable and distinguished contributions to the role of science in advancing the public good”.
She has been named in Top 100 Women of Influence in Australia and the Top 10 Women Engineers in Australia.
The feisty high achiever and gender equality champion sees this latest recognition as a “beginning” that will enable her to lead and drive forward more initiatives and to have a voice in the important discussions and decisions that need to be made to secure Australia’s future.
She is particularly keen to grow even stronger ties with India, where several exciting partnerships are already yielding robust equations. “For example, IIT Bombay, where I studied chemical engineering, has a research partnership with Monash University where students can earn a PhD at both institutions. The Australia India Science Research Fund co-funded by both countries has also been running for several years,” she noted.
The greatest opportunities, Kanga believes, are in commercialising research and forming successful business partnerships. “A recent Global Leaders Forum hosted by the India Australia Business Council, focussed on how businesses can collaborate, especially in products and services using advanced technologies. There are thousands of start-ups and many unicorns in India. Australia could learn from these successful entrepreneurs, especially through its Indian diaspora,” she stated.
Dr Kanga’s own company iOmniscient Pty Ltd is already working with partners in India to implement advanced Artificial Intelligence for video technologies.
So, what is her mantra for success?
“Unfortunately, there is no fast track or escalator to the top. Many new arrivals from India will, no doubt, find it difficult to settle in, find jobs and homes. It was not easy for me either, especially as a woman engineer; this was a rarity when I first arrived in Australia. It’s important to recognise that Australia offers a lot of opportunities. Ensuring specific career goals and keeping them in mind, while seizing every opportunity, is important to get ahead and succeed,” she advises.
Looking back on her stellar career, Kanga remembers vividly how rare female engineers were.
“In fact, I was only the second female engineer employed by Esso Australia. Since then, the role of women and the recognition of the contribution that women can make has improved significantly in both countries. This is necessary for sustainable economic development. We simply cannot address the important issues of today if we leave out the contributions of half the brainpower of the country,” she reiterated.
Delving back to where it all began for her, she remembered a particularly funny anecdote. “Armed with not one but two engineering degrees, both from world leading universities, I approached a local job centre and explained “I have an MSc” and the official replied, “But have you done your HSC? This was the start of my brilliant career in Australia!”
For Kanga though, there is still plenty of ground to cover.
“The recognition I have received will, I hope, open more doors and give me the voice that is needed to advance many issues. I am still climbing the mountain. There is a great deal to be done. However, the view from where I have reached is empowering and inspiring. And on my climb, I must acknowledge that it is a shared achievement and thank my husband and sons for their love, patience and support and for the many colleagues who have journeyed with me and provided their invaluable insights and advice along the way,” she concluded.