/ 21 June 2024

Women in engineering can help build a better South Africa

Making Paper Blueprints A Thing Of The Past
We need to enable more women — and men — to become engineers who possess the skills and resources to drive positive change

South Africa is a country of extremes and severe income inequality, as exemplified by its Gini coefficient, which is the highest in the world. 

The system works relatively well if you have a job and earn a good salary, offering access to high-quality private healthcare, good schools, competitive sectors and reputable universities. However, 32% of South Africans, and 45.5% of the youth (15 to 33 years old), are unemployed, highlighting the deep divide in economic participation and opportunity. 

Although every citizen is affected, the poorest of the poor are always the hardest hit by disruptions in electricity supply, dilapidation in logistics systems, rampant food inflation, inequalities in healthcare access, a failing education system and a poor economic outlook.

As we celebrate the role of women in engineering on International Women in Engineering Day (23 June), we should also acknowledge that it remains difficult for women to advance in the engineering profession because many barriers still exist. Women generally make up 13% of STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) graduates, and only 7% of engineers registered with the Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA) are women. Let us not deny these statistics. When we look at women’s representation in engineering in South Africa, it is a story of attrition and lost opportunities to develop our country’s youth. 

As a system thinker and academic, I hope to help frame discussions and debates to transcend the “bad habits” of linear thinking. Drawing a simple cause-effect relationship and developing isolated solutions to much larger problems is very tempting. 

Poor and hungry South Africans are a case point. A 2020 United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) report highlights that over 1.5 million children under five years in South Africa are stunted, affecting nearly three out of every 10 children in the country. The developmental, economic, and social impacts of malnutrition are severe and long-lasting, especially in the early years of life. Unicef estimates that the costs of undernutrition in Africa and Asia are equivalent to losing 8% to 11% of GDP annually

Growth stunting is not merely a consequence of inadequate nutrition but a result of various systemic factors, including deficiencies in public healthcare, the education system, socioeconomic conditions, joblessness, food inflation and inefficiencies in logistics systems to distribute nutritious food. While those working to develop interventions mean well, many focus only on limited levers to address food insecurity and shortages, neglecting other parts of the system where problems originate. Addressing growth stunting in South Africa requires recognising it as a systemic consequence of many system failures. 

By analysing how systems work and fail, we can better understand the vicious cycles and potential virtuous loops we must enable. We need integrated approaches to help improve South Africans’ access to food, education, and healthcare. Engineering professionals are ideally placed to contribute to this approach. However, the road to becoming qualified and technically equipped to work on these problems is filled with obstacles. 

In 2021, ECSA conducted a study to assess the pipeline of learners entering the country’s school system in grade one and tracked those who met the engineering or technical qualification criteria to access tertiary education. The findings revealed a significant loss of talent throughout the educational journey. The study highlights the high attrition rate in schooling, with about 40% of learners dropping out before completing grade 12. 

Among the over 750 000 students who wrote their matric exams in 2020, only 5.6% were eligible for entry into engineering diplomas, technologist qualifications or university engineering programmes. This translates to roughly 41 000 students achieving scores between 50% and 100% in maths and science. When considering the original cohort of Grade 1 learners from 2012, only 3.3% ultimately qualified for tertiary education in engineering. 

Enrolment rates are also concerningly low, with only a small percentage of qualified candidates enrolling: 20% in diploma programmes, 27% in technologist programmes and 24% in engineering degrees. Attrition does not stop there — roughly 50% of engineering students will drop out eventually, primarily due to poor preparation in their schooling years.

To foster the development of the engineering discipline in South Africa — for women (and men) — it is crucial to address the entire educational pipeline and find ways to improve it. With a high youth unemployment rate, the consequences of neglecting the development of young people are stark and significant. 

South Africa has a skills mismatch, which means the demand for skills is at the higher end of the skills continuum, while the unemployed tend to have lower-level skills. There is a range of national attempts to develop young people for employment. Still, the engineering profession and industry can do more to build our discipline and help plug the holes in the pipeline for developing much-needed technical skills and engineering talent. 

Let us also be reminded that we, as engineering professionals, form part of the “haves” in our system. We are part of the fortunate few who have successfully navigated the heavily perforated education pipeline. With a relatively low unemployment rate among engineers, most of us can participate actively in the economy. We possess skills, positions, agency and resources, empowering us to drive positive change, particularly in addressing the broken infrastructure and service delivery systems such as healthcare and education in the country. 

With a new government forming, despite the uncertainties, it is clear that engineering professionals have a unique opportunity, and a significant responsibility, to step forward. We must make ourselves seen and heard in improving service delivery in every sector of our economy and society. 

We, as engineers, need to make sure that we use the opportunity presented to contribute optimally to the development of good practices and the professional management of our country’s infrastructure. Our hard-earned abilities equip us to tackle complex problems and bridge the gaps between failing systems that hinder our fellow South Africans’ ability to live decent lives. By applying our expertise in systems thinking, we can create practical and effective solutions for a more sustainable and inclusive economy. 

The world is evolving rapidly, with new technologies and business models disrupting global economies and creating unprecedented opportunities for development. We cannot afford to miss this boat.

Sara Grobbelaar is a professor in the Department of Industrial Engineering and a research fellow at the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Scientometrics and Science, Technology and Innovation at Stellenbosch University.