Prior to my PhD, I worked for over nine years as a Civil and Transport Engineer in various workplaces such as construction sites, consulting companies, and government agencies in Iran. When I started my PhD, here in Australia, I never imagined that it would be even harder to be a woman researcher, particularly in the area of logistics which my PhD research was about.
As a postdoctoral researcher in logistics and freight transportation, I had to prove that my research can bring benefits to the industry by getting either in-kind support (such as obtaining confidential industry data) or in-cash support. Soon, I realised that I am commonly perceived as an alien who does not know how this industry works let alone be qualified to prescribe a solution.
The Australian logistics sector is a male-dominated industry and relatively distant from the research community. The logistics sector has so many complexities, and experience plays like an ace card. It leads to a misconception that women researchers undermine the complexity of logistics operations due to their lack of industry experience, and their research will not be pragmatic. According to my experience, it becomes more arduous if your research is on disruptive technology solutions and when you come from an engineering background, working with numbers and formulas versus other disciplines.
However, the impossible is impossible. I’d like to share some of the things I’ve learned on my journey so far.
Embrace the environment and overcome the fear of being the lead. Back in my university days, as one of a handful Civil Engineering female students in Iran, I realised that in order to survive, I have to be comfortable with being one of a few –sometimes the only – women in the class or field trips. I realised that I should not let this intimate me or hold me back. I should take this as an opportunity to stand out and prove my confidence and work excellence. Throughout my career, I have experienced that whenever I confidently speak up or share ideas, others start to not pay attention to the fact that I am a woman. In the workplace, I sometimes have to be direct and assertive. At first, you may be called “bossy” by your male colleagues. But it is okay, be patient and let them get used to a confident woman around themselves. Make it clear that you are determined about your work ethics and your career goal, and forget about side noises. They will be gone soon.
Be proactive. It is true that if you maintain your work integrity and continue to deliver your tasks, you will most likely survive in this industry. However, I would say that it is probably not enough to make you grow, at least with the same speed as your male colleagues. My experience showed me that I need to be proactive, tenacious, passionate and enthusiastic about my job and my goal. I need to be more updated about the industry events than anyone else in the room, and I should proactively contribute value not only in conversations but also in bringing new, creative and cutting-edge practical ideas into the table. Of course, it requires me to invest in myself, build my knowledge base, and challenge myself to think outside the box.
“Yet I believe that it is the best time for women to pursue a career in supply chain and logistics despite all the difficulties. During the last decade, many big companies and organisations are moving towards bringing gender diversity, and many colleges and universities have developed curriculum in STEM majors that attract more women in supply chain and freight transportation.” – Elnaz Irannezhad
Back in my university days, I never underestimated the power of extra-curriculum activities such as volunteering for organising an industry event or engaging in research projects. It helped me to connect with professional industry people and get updates about the industry’s new trends and technological changes. Since then, I have never stopped learning. I utilise social media (e.g. Twitter and LinkedIn) as a learning tool and as a platform to get engaged in the discussions and debates. Not only it gives me a helicopter view of what is happening in the Australian and international logistics industry, but also it helps me to be recognised as a proactive contributor with my additive analytic scientific viewpoint.
Find an experienced mentor. It is often easier to find a supportive academic mentor. Still, as a young female researcher in a male-dominated industry such as logistics, you also need an industry mentor. Finding an industry mentor is not often easy. I learnt that I have to break the stereotype that researchers know everything and better than everyone else. While I always did my best to show my competency and the value proposition of my research, I nudged this idea that I am translating their valuable experience to the research language which would be useful for the future generations. With my perseverance, I managed to find a few mentors from the industry who were willing to share their empirical knowledge with me, in the hope of preserving and transforming it into the young academic community. Interestingly, later they became very vocal in broadcasting my research outcomes and their value-adding, mainly because they perceived themselves as a contributor, and indeed they were.
Challenge yourself by leaving your comfort zone. I pursued diverse functional roles as early as I could. I took different jobs and challenged myself by working in different environments, including private consulting companies, government organisations, research institutes, and even working as a freelancer. Working across various disciplines, and taking on different roles and projects helped me to expand my network, better understand the industry and consequently made me more confident.
Up to now, I cannot name a female professor in the field of logistics in Australia, and it is for a reason. Promotions in the academia highly depend on industry grants, publishing in high-quality outlets, and proving that your research has had real-world impacts. Hence, it requires lots of industry engagement efforts and more importantly eliminating traditional gender bias in the logistics industry. But it should start somewhere, and young female logistics researchers need to take the lead and not be complacent to limit themselves to only desktop research.
Yet I believe that it is the best time for women to pursue a career in supply chain and logistics despite all the difficulties. During the last decade, many big companies and organisations are moving towards bringing gender diversity, and many colleges and universities have developed curriculum in STEM majors that attract more women in supply chain and freight transportation. Opportunities for women continues to grow, and we see more C-suite women emerging in this industry. Great initiatives such as WISC (https://womeninsupplychain.com.au) have been created to provide a supportive network and pave the road for better gender diversity. You can also find many industry leaders who are willing to help women grow in this space, but only when they make their own decision to grow.
About the author:
Dr Elnaz Irannezhad is currently a Principal Transport Engineer at the Australian Road Research Board (ARRB). She focused on freight transportation and logistics after her arrival to Australia when she started her PhD at the School of Civil Engineering, University of Queensland in 2014. Prior to that, she worked for over nine years as a project manager, senior transport engineer on large-scale projects in Iran. After finishing her PhD in 2017, she worked as a Postdoctoral researcher at the Australian Institute of Business and Economics on a project funded by Port of Brisbane and University of Queensland partnership. During her postdoc career she consulted the Port of Brisbane on their blockchain-based Trade Community System and also could attract and successfully deliver three external industry grants, sponsored by the National Transport Commission (NTC), Department of Infrastructure Regional Development and Cities (DIRDC), and Northern River NSW Regional Government. She has also been awarded two competitive university research grants in 2020. Her research interests span over transportation engineering, optimisation, disruptive technologies such as Logistics 4.0 and blockchain technology. She has authored ten peer-reviewed journal papers and over 20 international conference presentations. The majority of her publications are in the field of freight transportation, logistics, and freight distribution.
Website: Elnaz Irannezhad
LinkedIn: Elnaz Irannezhad