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Our industry is resilient, diverse and strong: Sandra Hall

From safeguarding Australia’s waterways to championing change, AWA board member and Advanced Water Management Centre (AWMC) Operations and Business Development Manager Sandra Hall is passionate about the water sector.

We asked Sandra about her career so far, the importance of promoting diversity and inclusion in the sector and the best piece of advice she has been given.

What initially drew you to the water sector and what has kept you interested?

When I was growing up, my family had a beach house in the Queensland town of Toorbul, which is a small fishing-orientated town that sits right on Pumicestone Passage. This waterway was being heavily impacted by commercial fishing and the local forestry industries. We lost the oyster and seagrass beds, which meant that we lost a lot of diversity in our sea life in the passage.

Sandra Hall

As a community we came together to lobby the government to ban commercial fishing and tighten the regulation on environmental discharge from industry. This community of action worked and the passage recovered.

We still have our beach house and now I take my kids out to see the families of dugongs and watch the schools of marine life. From this experience I got my passion for community action and protecting waterways, and after seeing my first wastewater treatment plant at the age of 15, I was hooked. 

Our natural resources have been drained and affected to the point that any decision we make, that impacts on the environment, is not an easy one. Our solutions to challenges are complex and decisions need to be multi-institutional. But our industry is resilient, diverse and strong; it creates impact by enriching knowledge and understanding, provides relevant solutions and effects social change. Water professionals are leaders at all levels and champions of change – who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?

What do you enjoy most about your role at the AWMC at the University of Queensland?

I have been a team member of the AWMC for 21 years. I've had many roles in that time and have seen the centre grow from the humble beginnings of 20 people and $2 million to the diverse team of 120 staff and students with an annual turnover of close to $10 million and recognised as second in the world for urban water research.

I am incredibly proud to be a part of an organisation that is doing some amazing cutting-edge research and providing the water industry with the necessary tools to address challenges. But what I enjoy most about my role is that no day is the same and that I get to work with an amazing team. In particular, I love working with the research higher degree students. We have a large cohort that is incredibly diverse and they all bring new and exciting perspectives to the team. At the end of last year we had 12 students finish their PhDs and I am so humbled to have been part of their career journey.    

How do you think the Australian water sector performs when it comes to gender equality?

That’s a difficult question to answer because equality is one measure but inclusion will drive change. As a sector I believe that we do celebrate diversity and all that makes us different, but I believe that we still have a long way to go on building inclusive workplaces. There is an impressive pipeline of talent in the sector, and at UQ we are graduating higher numbers of women engineers than ever.

I have witnessed transformational change in some organisations that have addressed the barriers and inequalities in the workplace, such as the gender pay gap, and while there is still work to do I do have an positive view of gender equality in the sector and that it is improving. 

You have been involved in the AWA’s Channeling Change program – why do you think it is important to promote diversity, inclusion and equality?

One of my favourite quotes is: “Diversity is about being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance”. AWA’s Channeling Change program has given us opportunities to dance. Channeling Change has really inspired us to have a conversation and raise the issues that are important.

Sandra Hall with her family

I have been involved in a Channeling Change community of practice, and professionals sharing their diversity and inclusion experiences has been of greatest benefit to me. I also help facilitate a diversity and inclusion workshop that has been gathering data on what our professionals believe are the biggest diversity and inclusion challenges facing our organisations. We are getting some really interesting results indicating that culture/heritage, LGBTIQ+ and age are three areas where they would like to see more effort being made.

What’s the best piece of advice you have been given?

I have had a lot of advice over the years, some good, some I ignored. One piece of advice that resonated with me was that I had a somewhat unrealistic expectation of work-life balance. There is this utopia that we try to achieve – all professionals but more commonly women – but we need to realise that it’s just life. If there is something in that life that isn’t making us happy or not aligning with our values, then you are the person who can change that.

I used to have so much guilt about not getting enough time with my boys, and parent guilt will never completely go away, but I have found other ways to integrate my family into my profession. As a tip, I get my boys to do some artwork on the back of my speeches before any event, so that even if I am opening a congress of a thousand people my boys are up on stage with me. 

Who are the women in the sector you admire and why?

I admire so many people in the sector, I’m not sure there is enough room for me to name everyone. Jenny Danslow, a senior engineer currently with Advisian, is a female trailblazer and always has time at every women of water event to encourage and mentor new female graduates. But there are so many other female trailblazers. Women like Helen Stratton, the first female AWA Queensland President and Lucia Cade, the first female AWA National President. These three women have inspired and encouraged me to take on AWA leadership roles, so that I can encourage the next generation of women to get involved.