How an electric toothbrush helped this engineer earn a bright working life Down Under
29 September 2015
Article republished on Norman Disney & Young website and as told to Property Australia magazine
This is not the opening line of a joke. But if you’re interested in beguiling stories, then Aisling Coughlan is an easy person to talk to. As she speaks to Property Australia magazine, she has a glimmer in her eyes and a genuine ability to connect to people through conversation. “I just really like people,” she says with a refreshing authenticity.
Norman Disney & Young (NDY) Melbourne office manager Joseph Steele was “thrilled” to announce Coughlan’s appointment to the company’s Melbourne executive. “While extremely competent in the existing buildings market, Coughlan has an exceptional set of skills outside the traditional ability of an engineer. Aisling complements the existing expertise of our current executive and brings with her a breath of fresh air into our perspective,” said an ebullient Steele.
A native of Limerick city, Coughlan didn’t take the conventional path to her chosen profession. She was educated in all-girls schools and remembers being told by a teacher at age 10 that she had the ability to do whatever she wanted with her life. It’s this statement that has resonated with her ever since. She credits much of her life choices to “being open” to possibilities.
Coughlan was introduced to engineering through a female friend of the family who was studying mechanical engineering and undertaking work experience for a company designing electric toothbrushes.
‘Engineers design things we take for granted in everyday life’
“It was the realisation that engineers design things we take for granted in everyday life, from toothbrushes to tanks, and from beer to buildings,” Coughlan said. But it was during her graduate year, while working for a contractor on a luxury resort in Co Clare called Doonbeg Lodge, that she discovered building services.
“This project exposed me to consultancy work and I found a real passion for having an influence on design and working closely with clients,” she said.
Arriving in Australia as a backpacker in 2008, Coughlan came to NDY via three months picking cherry tomatoes in Bundaberg. She said this experience, which involved her working in 38-degree temperatures, was “the worst ever”.
Coughlan started working for NDY in its Melbourne office in 2009. In 2012 she relocated to the firm’s Brisbane office. She speaks fondly of her time there, laughing when she recalls a dress-up Christmas party she attended as Katy Perry.
Coughlan became an Australian citizen last year with her partner, Murph, who works as a civil engineer for John Holland. The citizenship ceremony in Brisbane was very special to them both. “Technically, that makes us Queenslanders,” she quipped.
She returned to the Melbourne office in 2015 and enjoys every opportunity to work with people to achieve the best-possible technical outcomes. This is reflected in her open-minded approach and her resolute belief that “no one person has all the answers”.
Coughlan lists being genuine and vulnerable and having integrity and humility as core leadership strengths, although she recognises that “leadership means different things to everyone”.
On the subject of diversity, Coughlan believes it is “broader than gender” and lists age, nationality, experience, religion, background and community as factors that contribute to overall true workplace diversity.
Difficulties encountered as a female engineer
She is proud to be a woman in leadership, but doesn’t want to be defined by that. Asked about the difficulties she has encountered as a female engineer, she is pragmatic. “If anything, being female in a male-dominated environment has been a real positive. I often have a different way of thinking and approaching challenges,” she said.
She would like to think her appointment to the NDY Melbourne executive will motivate other women graduates to reassess the trajectory of their careers, but thinks there is more work to be done to progress women in the workplace and particularly within engineering.
Coughlan is clearly motivated by her work. Steele recently paid tribute to her. “You put your heart into your projects and our clients clearly appreciate that.”
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