Abbie Dean's head of steam for geothermal women

Last updated 05:00 05/06/2016
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Geothermal geochemist Abbie Dean is helping to fight gender bias in the industry.

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Scientist Abbie Dean is leading a campaign for women working in the geothermal industry - by recruiting men.

A year ago Dean was appointed New Zealand Ambassador for Women in Geothermal (WING), a global movement aimed at the promotion, education and advancement of women operating in the sector.

Now, Dean has just completed writing WING's five-year vision, and part of that road map includes having 50 per cent male membership, out of a target 1500 members by 2020.

She said: "We truly appreciate and need the support of men. Everyone has daughters, nieces, granddaughters, sisters and that means we need men involved too, to help ensure the next generation of New Zealanders don't encounter the subtle gender biases that are still out there and that create barriers for women."

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Dean is a geothermal geochemist at Contact Energy's Wairakei Power Station. The only female geothermal geochemist at the site, she one of a team of only half a dozen female technical experts in the site's overall team of 17 females and 150-odd site employees.

But as a young female scientist entering the geothermal energy sector, she initially suffered from a crippling lack of self-confidence.

"For two years, my internal voice told me I wasn't good enough. I didn't know how I could contribute. It took me a long time to work out what I could offer, which is my own opinion."

Her initial lack of confidence changed into an active passion for encouraging women into geothermal careers and supporting them to realise their potential.

"We know there are strong, quiet and technically brilliant women out there who are inspiring leaders and we want to promote them," she said. "We want to be visible and we want to inspire. We want other women to see us in positions of influence, making decisions and leading.

"And we want them to then have the courage to step into those roles too. And we think there will be some really positive outcomes – not just for women, but the industry as a whole."

Dean said she experienced the impact of subtle biases, fresh out of completing a Master of Science (Hons) in Geology at Auckland University - a far cry from the Fashion Design Degree she'd started out with.

It was a Contact Energy pilot mentoring programme that enabled Abbie to work through her confidence issues, both through being mentored by female senior leaders - and acting as a mentor to a senior male leader.

"It did amazing things for me. My internal voice told me he was terrifying and so much smarter than me, but I quickly worked out he's not scary at all. He's actually pretty remarkable and really cares about his people. "

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The mentoring spurred Dean to take on new opportunities that she once wouldn't have considered - such as being the next NZ WING ambassador.

"When I was asked I discredited myself straight away. Surely they needed someone more senior? Then I realised I was my own worst enemy, I had to challenge myself more, stand up and let my opinion be known."

While it's tough at the frontline of this high-risk industry where "because of the nature of the work, it takes time to earn your stripes", Dean's inspired by Contact Energy's strong female and male leadership and shift from a rules-based culture to one of empowerment and collaboration.

"Part of what we want to do with WING is promote all these women we know are out there who are technically brilliant and doing inspiring things as leaders. 

"We want to promote the value women in the industry bring; those strong quiet women in the background who are totally awesome and don't let people know it.

"Right now, the energy sector is going through a transition and attitudes are shifting from being less about producing power and more about the customer, the person at the end of the line. 

"And as part of that I'm inspired by the goal of working hard to make energy more cost-effective. To help my family, friends and neighbours be comfortable in their homes.

"You need to have a degree of imagination to be a scientist, particularly in what I do. It's an enormously creative process working out what goes on underground." 

Dean has developed a plain English elevator pitch to explain exactly what a geothermal geochemist does in response to the 'what do you do' question.

"To put it in a nut shell I look at the chemistry in the water and steam that comes out of a geothermal well. It contains a whole lot of stuff that you could call impurities like silica, chloride, sulphur, lithium and even small amounts of gold and silver."

And she does that for two very important reasons – ensuring power is made as efficiently as possible and that the geothermal resource is being taken care of.

- Sunday Star Times

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