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Water engineer leading the way for women in STEM

Water engineer Dr Annalisa Contos has been a trailblazer for women in STEM and the utilities sector, and she’s finally being recognised for her work. 

Named as a finalist in the 2020 Telstra Business Women’s Awards, the chemical engineer and water industry consultant said that while providing clean drinking water is hugely valuable work, it’s just the beginning when it comes to the transformation she wants to see in the world.

“What I love about the water sector is that it's such a fundamental service, even if it's one that people take for granted,” she said. 

“We have the primary goal of managing the water cycle for our communities’ health. Historically, this has been providing safe water and sanitation for our communities but now it’s also about water’s contribution to liveability. At the end of the day, to know that the communities I work with have safe water is what drives me.”

And it’s a considerable drive that Contos has shown in her career. After studying chemical engineering at university, she was offered a graduate position at Tubemakers Water, supporting their expansion in water and sewage treatment in the late 1990s, when the industry was moving into the privatisation of many services. 

From there, she went on to do a PhD at the University of Sydney, looking at how microorganisms formed minerals in Bungonia Caves and out on the Nullabor, which at times involved abseiling 150 m just to collect samples. 

“After my PhD, I worked for Public Works in New South Wales (NSW). I loved being back in the water sector, working with a whole range of water utilities and helping them manage the water cycle for their communities. I particularly enjoyed the strategic planning work and upgrades to their water plants.”

Going it alone

Annalisa Contos started Atom Consulting in 2009 to achieve a more flexible work-life balance Contos started Atom Consulting in 2009 to achieve a more flexible work-life balance

After her young sons were diagnosed with autism, Contos decided to go out on her own to achieve a more flexible work-life balance.

She formed Atom Consulting in 2009, which now has three employees as well as Contos and her husband Steven. They recognise the importance of showcasing the water industry to students and usually hire an intern each year, and have a diverse business that prides itself on consulting beyond the cities. 

“As well as supporting the metropolitan utilities, I work a lot with regional and remote utilities,” Contos said.

“They have so many more challenges out there, and I love trying to help.”

When it comes to career highlights, Contos is most proud of being a part of turning theory into best practise.

“I'm really proud of being involved in developing the guidance for drinking water and recycled water management systems in NSW. We were able to take the national guidelines on water and contextualise them for [the state], and then work with the utilities to embed that into their operations,” she said. 

“We’ve seen a steep change in supporting the legislation and bringing the utilities up to manage their drinking and recycled water systems safely.”

Indeed, Contos sees this centralisation of services as the major ongoing challenge in the sector.

“In Australia we have different operating contexts, depending on the state. There is national guidance, with state-based implementation. For example, in NSW there are three different regulatory environments, depending on whether you're a public utility, a private utility, or local water utility. It's complex. 

“There is the challenge of how we operate from the cities, where we have a reasonably dense population, out to the regions where it’s quite sparse and some of those water utilities will never be financially viable. It can be tough building and maintaining the knowledge and support services in those communities.”

Developing diversity

Having lived through a lot of changes herself, whether it be privatisation of assets or regional droughts, Contos is keen to give back and help people from diverse backgrounds get their foot in the door. 

“When I was at Public Works, I would mentor the younger engineers through the Australian Water Association’s mentoring program, as well as a lot of informal mentoring where I took people on board and just worked with them through issues,” she said. 

“I've also been involved in mentoring migrants, connecting them up with the right people and helping them get internships, which can then give them the Australian experience that they need.”

Early on in her career, Contos says she felt the need to call out everyday sexism, and was frustrated when managers didn't understand what she was talking about. These days, her key piece of advice to young women is appreciating the need for balance in yourself and others.

“Without wanting to overly generalise, I remember an observation that resonates with me: men tend to be more transactional and women tend to be more relationship-based. Neither way is best; both have their strengths and their weaknesses. [But] understanding the different approaches is important. There are times when it might be better to move to a more transactional nature, but building relationships without the expectation of an immediate return can provide long-term benefits.”

In that vein, Contos feels the current COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to change the utilities sector for the better, as it’s proving there is a different way of doing things.

“It's been very interesting to see how quickly our sector adapted to the need to change our working conditions and environment. I hope the industry will be able to maintain these flexible work practices going forward. 

“I think there'll be some interesting innovations and approaches that come from this. I've had regional colleagues say they've never felt more included. Now that everyone is on video call people are ensuring they are inclusive.”

Ultimately, she says that enhancing diversity in STEM and water utilities isn’t only a challenge for women to solve.

“It’s important to ensure we have a good diversity of graduates coming into the industry. Equally, we are lacking women at the top;  there are leaks in the diversity pipeline the whole way along. This isn't a women's problem – it's an industry problem. We need the whole industry to ensure that it's inclusive and diverse to ensure innovation and creativity.”