In 1998, Shelley Wharton (nee Renkema) decided to make a career change and signed up for Unitec’s Environmental Engineering degree. Now Infrastructure Programmes Department Manager at Whangārei District Council and a member of the Water NZ Board, we spoke to her about her career journey and the challenges she’s faced as a woman in engineering.
Shelley spent four years in logistics and CAD design roles before deciding to explore a career in engineering. Looking back, she says it was something she’d always been interested in but, in the early 1990s, engineering wasn’t typically a suggested career option for women.
“Growing up on farms in Canada and New Zealand gave me a strong connection with the natural environment. My father was a mechanic and owned a garage workshop, so I was also very familiar with cars, engines, welding and grease! At school, I really enjoyed maths, tech drawing and the arts, but didn’t follow through with the sciences in my later school years. So, when I left school, I studied administration - I guess I didn’t really know what I wanted to do! It wasn’t until I found myself doing mechanical CAD design in one of my roles, working alongside electrical engineers, that I realised I could study engineering.”
Shelley’s interests lay in the environmental aspects of engineering, and she found Unitec’s Environmental Engineering degree (This programme is no longer offered, but Unitec offers a similar programme Bachelor of Engineering Technology (Civil))best suited her needs.
“Unitec’s degree brought together environmental science and engineering from the start, which really appealed to me. Plus, it was easy to take extra papers to bridge the gap in my high school sciences knowledge. I also found the flexibility of the degree fitted with my lifestyle. I worked and studied full time in my first year, then worked part-time for the remainder of my degree. Unitec understood the challenges of fitting study in around a job.”
A varied career in local Government
In 2002, attracted by their ‘Eco City’ philosophy, Shelley took a job as an engineer at EcoWater - part of the former Waitākere City Council and responsible for water supply, wastewater and stormwater. After three years she moved into a team leader role and eventually went on to run the development services side of the business - including three waters, transport and parks infrastructure.
“While working at Waitākere City Council, I became a member of the Auckland Transition Authority’s Stormwater Workstream responsible for establishing the new regional Stormwater Unit and planning for the merging of eight councils into one Unitary Authority. At the same time, I led the team providing advice to Watercare to prepare for the transfer of some wastewater and water supply functions from the councils. It was a busy time!”
In 2010, Shelley secured a role in the new Auckland Council Stormwater Unit, leading a regional team responsible for providing advice on stormwater management, writing parts of the Unitary Plan, and continuing to deliver infrastructure programmes and projects for major growth areas such as Hobsonville Point and Westgate Town Centre.
After six years, she moved into a Programme Office role, focusing on the alignment of infrastructure delivery across Auckland Council, Watercare, Auckland Transport and private developers. Then, in 2017, Shelley made the move North to join Whangārei District Council.
“Moving to Whangārei was largely a lifestyle change, but the role offered new challenges for me too. My department looks after infrastructure programmes and major projects - from new urban parks and stadium upgrades to a new water treatment plant and the City Centre Revitalisation Programme. Anything that’s complex or high risk. My role on the steering group developing our multi-award-winning Organisation Strategy has been particularly rewarding.
“All up I’ve had nearly a 20-year career in local Government! I’ve been lucky enough to have a lot of different roles and opportunities over the years, which has kept me interested. I’ve also continued to learn throughout my career - including (with the support of Waitakere City Council) completing a National Diploma in Business at Unitec in 2008.”
Woman in engineering
While she’s certainly faced some challenges as a woman in a traditionally male field, Shelley believes the tide is turning.
“We’re starting to see more female engineers coming through tertiary education, which is great. Personally, there have been a few times over the years where I’ve had to stand my ground as a woman. I was often the only female in meetings, and being heard as a young person could sometimes be a challenge. I felt I had to prove myself; be more knowledgeable so people would take me seriously as an engineer.
“Very early in my career, I was asked by an older male customer if he could ‘speak to a man’. I politely declined and said I was the right person to talk to and he wouldn’t get a different answer from a male! I’ve also had to fight to be recognised equally financially as a woman, but that was a long time ago.”
Shelley says her advice for those moving into the engineering field is to have the courage to forge your own path and follow your interests, as that’s where you’ll add the most value.
“The more I’ve been involved in projects and added value, the more my expertise has been recognised and sought out. While there are still relatively few women in senior engineering management roles, things are changing. Today, the balance between men and women in the industry is evening out and you’re recognised for the job you do, regardless of gender.”