Award-winning female engineer Mardi Cuthbert has fought hard to rise to top of her profession. Now she’s helping aspiring young engineers do the same.
When Mardi Cuthbert started out as a junior engineer in 2013, she didn’t see many other women around. They weren’t participating at conferences and industry events, presenting papers, or working in leadership positions. That simple fact nearly finished Cuthbert’s career in public works, and almost cost the industry one of its brightest new leaders – the 2019 recipient of the Emerging Public Works Leadership Award.
The first of her family to attend university, Cuthbert comes from a family of cabinetmakers. She grew up in and out of the workshop where she was inspired by her father and grandfather, who taught her the value of problem-solving and the reward of having something to show for her hard work.
“Dad probably took up cabinets because it was passed down through the family,” Cuthbert says, “but he has a hands-on approach that made an impact on me: if you want something done, you can do it yourself.”
Looking for something different, Cuthbert went from an all-girls school into the engineering program at Swinburne University, where she became one of five females in the class. It took a while for her to build the confidence to trust herself and the projects she accomplished during her studies. Though she admits she didn’t know what she was getting into, engineering became a big part of her personal growth.
Cuthbert found her calling in traffic and transport, enamoured by the real-world application of academia. Even so, it wasn’t until she was placed at Banyule City Council that she saw a future for herself.
“You have such a huge influence on the world around you in the public works space, to tackle public issues and solve problems,” said Cuthbert.
“You can see a project from start to finish, like supervising the construction of a zebra crossing to help children cross safely or installing drainage so properties don’t get flooded.
“We’re the ones who assess and alleviate risk, and it’s a huge opportunity. We’re out on the ground talking to residents and making decisions that can change the way people go about their lives.”
Developing leadership skills
After four years at Banyule City Council as a junior and then project engineer, however, Cuthbert questioned whether there was a future for her, when so few women were climbing the ranks.
Determined to develop her capacity as a leader, Cuthbert left engineering for a co-ordinator position and then a project director role at YMCA Victoria. There she found what she was missing: “People like me – women,” she said.
Cuthbert gained valuable perspective from mentors who saw public works projects from the community side. She found it liberating to better understand the needs of those who may not speak the same language as the council engineers who were trying to improve the spaces people use.
She went on to build management skills that would later make her invaluable to the public works community as a role model for another generation of engineers. Meanwhile, alongside her job at the YMCA, Cuthbert was finding her footing in multisport competitions.
Gaining experience through sport
Sport has always been a part of Cuthbert’s life, and after finishing her engineering degree she began a six-week training program with the Hawthorn Triathlon Club.
If there is anything to explain her capacity for leadership, it’s a mental acuity for endurance athletics. For instance, Cuthbert says one of the keys to professional success is to surround yourself with people who lift you up.
“When it comes to race morning, athletes can range from full focus with game-face on, others are up for a laugh, and some wallow in negativity – that they’re not prepared, that the conditions are bad, that they can’t wait for it to be over,” she writes on LinkedIn. “Through experience, I have actively sought to find the right fit of people to train with for each discipline, [those] who create the right environment for me to thrive in.”
Cuthbert has competed interstate and internationally in multisport events, most recently in September 2019 at the International Triathlon Union’s Age Group World Triathlon Championships in Switzerland, with the Australian national team.
Building a career in council engineering
In January 2018, Cuthbert was approached by the Yarra Ranges City Council to apply for a traffic and transport co-ordinator role in their infrastructure services department.
The fourth-largest council in Victoria, Yarra Ranges covers diverse terrains from urban areas to farmland and rainforest. They are currently managing a major upgrade to council footpaths across the LGA. The region has also become a mountain biking destination, with around 100km of national biking trails created near Warburton as a means of boosting tourism and attracting investment.
During her first 18 months in the job, Cuthbert led the creation of a new team structure and pioneered the development of engineering guidelines for infrastructure projects. She initiated process improvements across traffic and transport and created asset protection teams with a focus on improving customer communication, which streamlined her engineers’ workloads.
Cuthbert says she is grateful she took the opportunity at Yarra Ranges. She found she was respected, valued and supported, and there was great reward in leading her team of eight engineers to make a positive impact on the community.
Continuing her journey in public works, Cuthbert has recently started in the role of head of facilities and infrastructure with the City of Casey’s city planning and infrastructure department.
Cuthbert first heard about the IPWEA in her university days when she attended a local conference. Her next involvement was when her Yarra Ranges director encouraged her department to get involved.
“So, I did a leadership program last year, attended a few events and things, and I ended up winning the Emerging Leader Award,” she says.
“I want young people and women to feel like there is a place for them … at the organisation, to help people feel like it’s something they want to stay involved in.”