Have the confidence to walk through the door

A love of mathematics and science was a gateway to the world for Wendy King, guest speaker at the St Margaret’s second Professional Women’s Networking Breakfast for 2018. The daughter of a Nebraska farmer, who was the first in her family to go to college and to have a passport, Wendy received a Bachelor of Science in petroleum engineering. She began her career with ConocoPhillips, which has taken her across the globe – including Houston, Holland, Aberdeen, Alaska and, since July 2011, Brisbane, Australia, where she elected to educate her daughter Allison at St Margaret’s.

In 2017, Wendy assumed the role of president, Australia East for ConocoPhillips.

“I love engineering,” she said, “and despite the difficulty of juggling different demands, I would not change the path I chose in 1986.”

Even in her first semester at the Colorado School of Mines, Wendy said she found calculus extremely difficult and almost gave up, but persisted through it.

Her advice, especially to the students in the room, was to not let that first semester get you down.

“It can be intimidating not to do well for the first time,” she said, but advised students to get themselves motivated and to persevere.

Wendy shared other challenges on the path to her success in this still male-dominated field.

“After my first summer job, I was told to go home and be a lady,” she laughed.

One of her drilling professors insisted on his students taking exams at 2am in the morning, which, while no longer practiced, Wendy said was invaluable.

“That’s what I have to do in the real-world. Get up at all hours and make rational decisions about often very complex and technical matters.”

Offshore survival training presented other physical challenges that needed to be met in order to work on the offshore oil rigs.

To work in the Gulf of Mexico one such training drill involved escaping a makeshift helicopter flipped in the water.

Wendy said she was partnered with a man twice her size who was terrified of water.

“I said to myself, ‘Wendy you’re just going to have to hold your breath, because there’ll be no ‘ladies first’ on this craft’,” she laughed.

Offshore survival training for the North Sea entailed having to pull yourself out of the water up a rope dressed in a survival suit, more difficult for women who generally do not have the same upper body strength as men.

Wendy says things are not always going to be easy but all of these experiences and challenges make you who you are.

She offered two pieces of advice her mother-in-law gave her to cope with a global career with a young family.

The first was to embrace every place for what it is and don’t focus on what it’s not.

The second was to live in every place as if it’s going to be your forever home, make friends and get involved in the community.

Wendy said it was also important to ask for help in this life and not try and do it all.

“Just make sure that you’re willing to return the favour when you can,” she emphasised.

Wendy said she was keen to move the needle on diversity and inclusion in the engineering profession.

“While 32% of women embark on a Bachelor in Engineering degree, only 14% of engineering graduates are female,” she said.

She said the problem did not lie with schools as the ratio of students taking Maths B, for example, is almost equal.

“Most girls don’t go on to choose engineering as a career in civil, mechanical or electrical engineering,” said Mrs King, “but perhaps it is the way in which the profession is marketed.”

“Engineers can improve the quality of life and shape big issues, like water security,” she said.

In closing her address, Wendy urged females to have confidence in themselves.

“Don’t be afraid to go through the open doors.

“I sometimes thought I was not ready for a role but went through that door, even though it was uncomfortable, and I broadened my skill set.

“Have the confidence and go through that door,” she implored. 

The next Professional Women’s Network Breakfast will be held on Thursday 23 August, with guest speaker Alison Quinn CEO of Retire Australia and Chair of St Margaret’s School Council.