/ 13 August 2008

Engineering new concepts

KwaZulu-Natal-born Bridgette Gasa’s passion for architecture and the built environment was ignited during her matric year at Mlokothwa High School when she came across architectural plans for the school’s new buildings. After plying the architects on site with questions, she was hooked.

“Since then I’ve always been completely fascinated by the opportunity that science offers people with inquisitive minds to engineer new concepts and technologies,” she says.

Undaunted by the fact that she was one of few women students in her faculty, she enrolled for a bachelor of building arts in architecture at the then University of Port Elizabeth.

“I needed to defy the odds which said — implicitly or expressly — there is no place for women in the field of science,” she says.

After graduating in 1997 Gasa joined an architectural firm in KwaZulu-Natal. So began a successful career that has since led to her being appointed as executive manager of infrastructure development at the Coega Development Corporation (CDC) in 2005 at the tender age of 28. This is where she has found her niche.

“The portfolio at Coega is expansive and perhaps the greatest challenge is acquiring and retaining the right resources at the right time and for the right purpose,” she says. “Coega is one of the most strategically relevant projects I’ve ever worked on and this relevance ranges from its advancement of socio-economic development in the Eastern Cape to sustainability and the growth of its business. I am extremely proud to be part of it.”

Gasa’s portfolio as developer of infrastructure is centered on creating sustainable jobs for contractors through the awarding of construction contracts. For this purpose she designs and implements procurement delivery methodologies aimed at advancing the participation of SMMEs — some of these construction businesses are run by women — within various levels of built environment skills.

This allows ample opportunity for two of her greatest passions — construction and project management. She has a masters degree in project management (University of Natal), construction management and global executive development programme certificates (through Stellenbosch and Gibs) under her belt and is reading towards her PhD in construction management.

Gasa sees construction as “a science of a different kind”, diverse and forever presenting the space for creating assets that last beyond our time here on Earth.

Her energies are focused on contributing to society. “I have always been driven by initiatives that have development at their core. It is no accident that I am at Coega, because I prefer working for initiatives that consider sustainability and social upliftment above profit-making,” Gasa says.

Yet she says being a scientist in industry has not always been easy.

“Global countries are slowly realising that investment in scientific research and development is what
increases their competitive advantages and improves country bottom lines,” she says. “Some industries are only coming to this realisation now and, as a result, those industries are starting to value the roles played by the scientists that drive those sectors. But my humble assertion is we still have a lot of catching up to do in this country.”

Gasa says that a lack of skills development and mentorship still hampers the fast-tracking of women in the construction industry and warns that unless this is urgently addressed, the number of women will remain low.

For this reason she sees mentorship as fulfilling an extremely important role in industry, without which young scientists may not fully evolve. “When done well, mentorship sheds a light on blind spots, opens network doors that would otherwise have remained closed, builds confidence and encourages creative ability, which is essential for devising today’s solutions for today’s problems,” she says.