F equals for women on the rise

Caitlyn Whittaker


Posted on April 22 2015

Caitlyn Whittaker is one busy woman! When she is not working as an Electrical and Lighting Engineer, she is out on the beach playing volleyball for her State. Check out her inspiring story here:

Newnham: What were you like as a child and what did you want to be when you grew up.
Whittaker: I can easily describe myself in one word - Determined. My family always told me that when I set my mind to something, there was nothing stopping me. I absolutely loved school (massive nerd who had to sit in the front row so I could learn as much as possible) and when I wasn't at school, I was usually off playing sport - netball, athletics, water polo, hockey, ballroom dancing; you name it, I probably had a go at it in my formative years.

I wanted to be so many things when I grew up - archaeologist, accountant, earth scientist, forensic scientist...basically I changed my mind every six months. When I was 16, I finally decided I wanted to be an engineer due to my love of maths and logic. Of course, I changed my mind a few times within my studies (chemical engineering, materials engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering) but I love the field.

Newnham: When did you get into sports and what made you fall in love with beach volleyball?
Whittaker: I've been playing sport for as long as I can remember. My Mum, Dad and two sisters were heavily involved in representative sport (ballroom dancing, touch football, netball, karate) so from around the age of three, I was down at the netball courts playing with my two older sisters. I represented my state for a number of years as a teenager and into my early 20s in Netball but eventually, I discovered that there might be life outside of sport and decided that it might be time to give netball a rest and try something new.  I moved into Indoor Volleyball when I moved interstate and then found beach volleyball in my mid twenties and just adore it!

What made me fall in love with beach volleyball has to have been the people. Beach volleyballers are generally some of the most beautiful human beings you will ever meet. They are so bright, optimistic and friendly (must be all that sunshine and Vitamin D) and are the type of people who will give you the shirt off their back if you don't have one of your own. I met my husband when playing beach volleyball (on opposing teams of course!) and have lifelong friends from the game. I love playing beach volleyball at an elite level because it keeps me fit and healthy and travelling around the country with some great people and representing some great companies as a brand ambassador.

Newnham: You're also an engineer. Can you tell us more about what you do and how you got into the field?
Whittaker: I'm a Principle Electrical and Lighting Engineer in the field of Building Services. Quite the mouthful, but what it means is that  I manage a team of professional electrical engineers and I design things like power infrastructure, fire detection systems and data services for buildings. But my ultimate passion for my job lies in lighting design and engineering. I studied for an extra three years on top of my bachelors degree to get my Masters in Design Science - Illumination Design - a fancy way for saying a Masters in Lighting. I absolutely adore providing ideas and designs for architectural purposes and I love being able to make an impact on people through the application of light.

I ended up in the field of Building Services by accident through a night out partying after an indoor volleyball tournament. After meeting some of the volleyballers who were also engineers, I was told I should come work with them. I believe the exact words were "You're a girl, we don't have one of those!". I applied for an undergraduate position the next day, started working there two days later, and the engineer who invited me to the company became one of my closest friends and mentors.

My job is extremely challenging but also extremely rewarding. To be able to see your projects constructed and see the impact of your design on the space is a wonderful experience. To be promoted to a Principle Electrical Engineer at the age of 29 was so humbling but I have a spectacular team of engineers who make each day a great experience.

Newnham: What advice would you give to young girls considering a role in engineering?
Whittaker: Engineering is a male dominated field but it definitely needs more women - we think differently, problem solve in some rather creative ways and throw our heart and souls into the role. My advice is to be confident in what you do, never doubt your own abilities, be humble in your achievements but never turn down an opportunity to promote yourself. Really challenge yourself and your problem solving skills and don't be daunted by the fact that it's a male dominated field. But mostly, don't let anything stop you.

Newnham: What are you most proud of?
Whittaker: This one is a tough one to answer and my response might seem quite strange. My proudest moment has to be the day that I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In 2010, I nearly lost my life in South America due to Deep Vein Thrombosis in my leg - a blood clot that ran from my ankle to my hip which I developed after getting food poisoning on the Inca Trail. I had an extremely tough trip where I was phenomenally  lucky to make it back home alive and in one piece.

When I made it back to Australia, I put all of my energy and all of my determination into getting better, but unfortunately, some of the valves in my leg were permanently damaged which meant that I would be in a compression stocking for the rest of my life - tough advice for someone in their 20s. Since I'd been so focused on my leg and health issues during my recovery, I didn't realise what an impact the experience in South America may have had on me mentally. With a stressful job, trying to get back to my sport and learning how to manage my damaged leg so that it wouldn't affect me negatively, I had a very tough couple of years, developed some pretty significant anxiety issues, and it just did not get any easier, even though I tried so so hard to stay phenomenally positive for the people around me. Fast forward to 2013, and, with the support of my wonderful friends and family, I was determined and strong enough to seek out the help I needed; to realise that the life I was leading didn't have to be my "new normal". I'm so proud of myself for taking that step and becoming a stronger person for it.

It really has given me a new insight into how people are affected by mental disorders. PTSD is a silent debilitation, and with the stigma's attached to it, its difficult to speak up. I was caught in the thought that people had lives much tougher than mine therefore why should my problem become theirs? I now know that your friends and family are their to support and bolster you and a person's problems are no less and no more than what anyone else is going through. Seeking help was the best thing I could have done for myself and its so wonderful to see that social media and the population in general is starting to become a lot more accepting and supportive of people with PTSD and mental disorders in general. (See, I told you it would be a strange answer!)

Newnham: What advice, if any, would you give a younger Caitlyn?
Whittaker: Trust your gut, it always tells you the right way to go. Surround yourself with your friends - they keep you grounded and push you up to the clouds all at the same time. Keep pushing yourself but remember to take some time off every now and again!

But mostly, trust yourself - you're going to get things wrong but no-one ever learns by getting things right!

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