We have to build more diverse role models – with Emily Afoa

Emily Afoa (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Maniapoto) is an environmental engineer who became a partner at Tektus Consultants Limited in 2018. We talked to Emily about her career and her experience being a Māori woman in the sector.

Emily Afoa

Tell us about Tektus? 

Tektus is an Auckland based consultancy that provides collaborative engineering, environmental and planning solutions. The company was formed five years ago by my business partner Jack Turner who I met at engineering school and have been friends with since. Jack and I have always shared strong values and work ethics, so when he decided it was time to share the load, I was delighted to be offered the chance. At Tektus, we undertake private land development work, primarily in the civil three waters space, and we work with councils in the public works area, specialising in stormwater management. We are also moving into the technical specialist and research arenas, where we're able to live some of the outcomes we are trying to achieve. 

What's your role at Tektus? 

I'm a partner and kaipūkaha (engineer) at Tektus. We're a small company with just eight staff, so everyone's role is fluid working as a tight team to deliver projects. My role varies - I can wear multiple hats; as a business partner, mentor, engineering technical specialist, design lead, reviewer, or academic, through to picking up office supplies. 

Where’d you grow up? 

I was born in Kirikiriroa (Hamilton) but didn't live there long. We moved to Taranaki, then on to Whanganui-a-Tara (Wellington), but the place I grew up in Kerikeri in Te Tai Tokerau (Far North). I lived in Kerikeri from the age of five until I was 15, and it was there that I developed a passion for maths and science. At the age of 15, I moved to Tāmaki Makaurau, where I completed high school and began studying engineering at The University of Auckland. I call Tāmaki Makaurau home now. 

What's your family background? 

I was fortunate to be adopted at birth by my wonderful parents. Growing up, I didn't want for anything but knew little about my heritage. I didn't grow up in Te Ao Māori but have always identified as Māori. As I became older questions about 'where am I from' have become more prominent, and I began connecting with my heritage as I moved into adulthood. 

Did you have any concerns about being born Māori but growing up in a European home? 

No, I didn't.  

As a young child, I didn't see myself as being any different from others. I have always known I'm adopted, and that has been a point of pride for me. The messages I received from my mum and dad were that we chose you, we wanted you, and we love you. I think that knowing I was adopted from a young age allowed me to have a very different experience from others I have met who found out that they were adopted at an older age. Mum and Dad always encouraged me to recognise that I have a Māori heritage, but they didn't have the tools to teach me Te Ao Māori. 

What inspired you to study engineering? 

I was drawn to problem-solving during my school years, and enjoy a challenge, so engineering was a likely career option. There was a bit of a close call in my final year of school as to whether I would take English and focus on literature, or go into engineering. In a visit to the school careers advisor, I took a test which helped identify possible career paths.  

Eight of my top ten results pointed towards engineering, so I guess that cemented a career path. My excitement about engineering grew further during the first year at University when we completed papers from across the different specialisations. I began my studies thinking an environmental engineering path was for me. While my eyes opened to other possibilities during that first year at University, it confirmed that specialisation in the environmental side of engineering was the right fit. Through the degree, the challenges became more significant as the courses became more complex but more exciting. With specialisation, my passion for environmental engineering grew, and it started me on the water sensitive design path. 

What was the subject of your PhD? 

My thesis was on quantifying the hydrologic balance for living roofs in an Auckland context. At that time, living roofs (or green roofs) were becoming more recognised internationally as a water sensitive system, but there was little New Zealand specific research. In those days, the field was known as low impact design, whereas we now use the terminology 'water sensitive design' or 'water sensitive urban design'. The trend for living roofs was growing at the time I completed my PhD, and I hope that my work provided a building block to help facilitate the uptake of this element of building design around New Zealand. 

What are the critical challenges for our industry?  

I believe one of the significant issues that the whole industry must deal with is collaboration across disciplines. We're grappling with complex social and environmental challenges that can't be isolated in their solutions. To get over that barrier, we must recognise how challenging the issues are and have our social scientists, urban designers, building and landscape architects, and engineers work together with a common purpose. Traditionally, the industry works in an isolated way – from regulation through to construction. Look at the way we talk about water. There is wastewater, stormwater, and water supply along with fresh water and the marine receiving environment. Really what we're talking about is the water cycle and all these areas are inherently connected.  

What are your thoughts on diversity within the consulting and engineering sectors? 

I represent two minorities in the engineering sector, being female and Māori. When I think back to my university days, I guess the minority aspect was reinforced to me when I was included more than once in a prospectus as an indication of diversity in the engineering faculty. However, I have been fortunate in my career, as I have always had strong female role models to look up to. Very infrequently have I felt disadvantaged or discriminated against during my career, but I know that's a very different experience to many others in the industry. It's a fact that there are far fewer Māori and Pasifika, and particularly women, in engineering than is desirable. Young women, Māori, and Pasifika, must have access to a learning environment where they can develop an interest in science and technology and feel they have the right to be in those spaces. We also have to build a more significant number of diverse role models within the industry who can mentor aspiring young engineers. 

Where does Te Ao Māori fit into engineering? 

My first introduction linking Māori values to water sensitive design was during my PhD. Since then, as I increase my knowledge base, I'm trying to actively advocate for greater recognition of mātauranga Māori in engineering, mainly through water sensitive design – the outcomes of which already draw upon fundamental Māori values. I am two years into learning Te Reo and continuing to align my passion for holistic water management with Te Ao Māori. It's a personal journey that I'm bringing into my profession because we need to create better outcomes for Aotearoa, and we need more diverse representation in both our professional roles and the solutions we create to achieve this 

It's challenging – there are times when I feel I'm 'not Māori enough'. For example, at University, I attended a pōwhiri, and I was pushed forward with the comment 'you are Māori, you know what to do', but I didn't. I wanted the ground to swallow me. As I continue this journey, I have learnt I'm not alone in that feeling. This realisation is a huge motivator to keep learning and sharing in both personal and professional spaces. I'm trying to use whakataukī (proverbs) and use my reo in public, and understanding that even though I make mistakes, that's ok. What's important is that I'm here, representing who I am and that I have supportive peers within the industry also looking to normalise Te Reo and embrace Te Ao Māori. While it would have been great to have started this journey earlier so that I would have more tools in my kete, even now I want to support, encourage, and potentially inspire, future engineers for a more diverse industry. 

What do you like to do outside work? 

Learning Te Reo takes a fair chunk of my spare time, with a return to study and assignments! I played ultimate frisbee for many years, but now spend more time in the outdoors with my family – dog walking, mountain biking, and depending on the season snowboarding and paddleboarding. 

Connect with Emily Afoa on LinkedIn