Women in engineering: Gender dynamics

5 Sep 2014

Leading women in engineering and aspiring female engineers gathered on the third day of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) Africa Engineering Week at the University of Johannesburg's Doornfontein Campus to tackle issues faced by the women in the profession.

The breakfast event allowed for open dialogue on issues pertaining to all the disciplines of the profession, which were dissected from different angles.

Throughout the morning-long session, it was apparent that there was still a lot to be accomplished to maximise the value of women in the profession.

"The issues pertaining to rules and human resources are still a major issue for women in the built environment," said Dr Kim Battle, who is one of the faculty leaders at University of Johannesburg (UJ).

"There are gender matters that surface time after time in the industry, regardless of the legislation and the times we live in," said Danai Magugumela, Managing Director at Bosch Stemele.

Women are still looked down on in the workplace because they are likely to take maternity leave at least twice in their working careers, and some employers still see this as time and productivity lost. The reality is that gender discrimination is likely to live on in some form or other, so as women climb the corporate ladder they need to pull more women up with them.

Many of the discussions during Africa Engineering Week related to sustainability –how the profession can be sustained, how engineering can contribute to environmental sustainability, and how engineering talent can be sustained.

Magugumela believes that the issue of sustainability and the survival and quality of life of future generations is a global matter rather than an African one.  This means the engineering profession needs to work towards environmentally sustainable solutions, not only for the continent but for the world.

Engineers also have a role to play in ensuring that the services enjoyed in urban areas are extended to the rural areas too.

"The task is to extend the pipeline of women engineers – women must take the front seat in protecting the environment," said Magugumela.

She emphasised that women should not underestimate the role they played in engineering and sustainability matters.

"We need to merge gender diversity issues with the diverse sustainability initiatives of our communities, through partnerships," she concluded.

Looking at the sustainability of the talent in the profession, something that is often overlooked is continued professional development, particularly as it pertains to management skills. Women in engineering management positions may have a strong set of technical skills, but little management experience. Group Five, a South African construction company, has an internal training centre that teaches its staff people management and leadership skills to complement their technical skills.

Women should set career goals, make concrete plans and persevere to achieve them, ensuring that they get all the help they need. It is important to try and get personal mentorship from another woman, as well as encouraging the development of other women either already in, or wanting to enter the profession.

"Alarming statistics reveal that 70 percent of the women who graduate with engineering degrees are lost once they start working, because they feel completely isolated where they are," said Hannelie Nel, from the Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA). This speaks to the need for support and mentorship structures to sustain women in the profession.

No one understands this better than young industrial engineer, Bennitta Senyatsi, who is currently the only woman in her department. She spoke passionately about the role of women in the profession, lamenting the many women who left engineering to go into marketing or management, in part due to sexism, however benevolent, in office dynamics.

Senyatsi believes that women need to be allowed to be women within the profession, and that more needs to be done in order to sustain young women in the industry to ensure that the profession is fed with fresh new talent.

At the forefront of championing female engineers is Women in Engineering (WomEng), which was formed out of the frustration experienced by young women in the profession while still at university. The non-profit organisation was established to make people think differently about the role of women in engineering by profiling the diversity of the profession, and fostering a culture of innovation. The organisation was also formed in order to drive mentorship and the sharing of life experiences, and to create the next generation of engineers.

"We are the Twitter generation - 120 characters or less. But we are not teaching our kids to be as innovative as other countries are," said Naadiya Moosajee, one of the WomenEng founders.

She believes that there have not been enough opportunities in South Africa to show how women in engineering can change the world.

Media contacts:
Cassius Mogoeng (Junior Account Executive: GGi Communications (for ECSA)
Tel: 011 728 1363
Cell: 073 550 8887
E-mail: cassius@ggisa.com

Veronica Mohapeloa (Deputy Director: Media Liaison (for the DST)
Tel: 012 843 6788
Cell: 082 882 3818
E-mail: Veronica.Mohapeloa@dst.gov.za

Rovani Sigamoney (Assistant Programme Specialist (for UNESCO)
Tel: 33 (0) 1 45 68 39 32
E-mail: r.sigamoney@unesco.org