HomeFeatures & AnalysisAre women in engineering stepping up to the leadership challenge?

Are women in engineering stepping up to the leadership challenge?

By Thandiwe Nkambule, Pr Eng; Electrical and Electric Engineering

Women are globally underrepresented in leadership positions. In South Africa, if one looks at the statistics of professional engineers registered with the Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA) and the number of engineering graduates from different institutions of higher learning, men are over-represented. This has an impact on the number of women that are available and will be available in the near future to take up leadership roles in the engineering profession in our country.

Women are also underrepresented in leadership positions of the JSE-listed companies and state-owned enterprises in general. According to the Business Women’s Association of South Africa (BWASA) Women in Leadership census of 2012, although women constitute more than 50% of the population, they make up only 44% of the working population in South Africa. They constitute 21% of all executive managers, 17.1% of all directors, only 3.6 % of all CEOs; and 5.5 % of all chairpersons of listed companies and state-owned enterprises in South Africa.

Over the past 11 years I have seen increasingly more women enter the field of engineering than ever before. It is encouraging that many companies are embracing transformation at a management level; however the pace is still gradual. Women are making a lot more effort to accommodate other women in the workplace and this includes hiring more women and promoting them into management positions.

Unfortunately, there are some companies, albeit only a few, where  men occupy the director and executive manager positions, with no women represented at senior levels, thus making it harder for women to move up the corporate ladder. At the same time, government is trying to push the women empowerment agenda, although this is not being heard by everyone.  According to Nkambule from ECSA, ECSA can create a platform where on the agenda is the issue of women advancement in the profession and how rapid change in this regarded can be encouraged and achieved.

In 2008, the Department of Labour published a report on engineering professionals which showed that in 1997 women constituted 4.44% of managers with engineering qualifications.  This number grew to 14.47% by 2005. This positive trend was partially due to more countries passing legislation that is driving the transformation agenda, as well as efforts undertaken by various parties to ensure that more doors are opened to women and that the glass ceiling is finally broken.

Thankfully, South Africa does not fare badly when compared to other countries regarding women in leadership positions, and particularly engineering.  The global trend is positive, with a large number of women climbing higher up the corporate ladder. In a study undertaken by ECSA last year in the 31 March 2013 financial year, it was revealed that more than 10% of the total number of engineers registered with ECSA is women. ECSA also revealed that the number of female candidate engineering professionals had risen by 9% and that the number of female professional engineers is currently sitting on 4%.

When I started my engineering career, it was with AngloPlat as an intern, where I spent a year learning the ropes, we were the initial group of women to work underground at that time. However the experience gained from that was unimaginable. The one incident that stands out for me was when we were asked to carry 25kg of cement to the other side of the mine. For the men, this was an easy task; however for us women it was extremely difficult to carry 25kg!  But we had to come up with a plan to overcome this obstacle and that is how I have approached my life going forward – always find ways to overcome challenges no matter what the situation is.

Throughout the years I have noticed that young people that are entering this profession do not understand what the profession is about. They are not aware of the different disciplines that are part of the profession, especially those that come from disadvantaged backgrounds.  It is our duty to educate the youth about making informed decisions about the career path they chose.  Mentoring young and upcoming engineers is important as it also helps to move candidate engineers to positions of professional engineers much faster without losing them in the future because of misinformed career choices. It also helps to ensure that they have an informed person to talk to about their future plans.

For me, engineers like Allison Lawless and Ayanda Noah have made my decision to continue striving to make a difference as an engineer, that much easier.  These are women who have been in the field for years and who have proven that women are as capable as their male counterparts.

In conclusion, I believe that women can add enormous value to the profession by holding leadership positions. This is something that can change over time with companies and government working together to push the same agenda, to create an environment that is conducive for women to become leaders.

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