The South African engineering sector has evolved to become more gender-balanced, as employment equity measures increasingly ensure equal opportunities for men and women.
That might be the long-term goal of the engineering sector, but it is certainly not the current reality.
In 2013, the Engineering Council of South Africa said almost 11% of the total number of engineers registered with the council were women, but that professional women engineers totalled only 4%.
Is it that women aren’t pursuing careers in engineering, or is there an underlying issue that challenges the opportunities for women to build sustainable careers in this sector?
I believe it’s the latter. Shocking statistics from the council last year showed that 70% of the women who graduated with engineering degrees left the sector after starting their careers because they felt isolated in their jobs. Research at Network Engineering reveals that professional South African women engineers continue to battle old stigmas in this male-dominated industry.
Despite being managers, these women report having to work harder to prove they are capable of doing their jobs, both behind their desks and in the field; they can’t ask too many questions for fear of appearing weak, nor be too assertive for fear of being labelled aggressive; they can’t show emotion in case they appear too sensitive; and they constantly have to fight the perception that they were only hired to meet employment equity quotas.
A common thread running through our findings is that because of the prevailing mentality, women engineers perpetually feel they are not valued as highly as their male counterparts and that they are not good enough for their respective positions, leading to immense self-doubt.
These conditions are to the detriment not only of the industry, but the country as a whole.
The UN’s International Labour Organisation has long highlighted the urgent need for countries to address gender discrimination in the scientific and technological fields and to change the traditional attitudes that exist in these sectors, saying that failure to do so constitutes an obstacle to nations’ progress.
Is gender disparity playing a role in South Africa’s dearth of competent engineers, hamstringing development in the process? Possibly. By far, more men than women enter the South African engineering sector. In 2014 alone, Network Engineering placed 121 male engineers in employment positions, but 20 women engineers during the same period.
South Africa urgently needs engineers: electrical engineers are first on the government’s scarce skills list followed by civil engineers and mechanical engineers.
An increase in women engineers would certainly fill this skills gap. So the question is, more than just recruiting additional women, can this sector transform its inherent culture to one that truly supports and sustains women professionals?
Marna Thompson is a senior branch manager at Network Engineering, a recruitment company in the engineering, IT and finance sectors