There is a global link between economic development and female participation, and this is evident in South Africa where a big gap exists between the participation of male and female engineers, says consulting engineering firm Malani Padayachee & Asso- ciates (MPA) CEO Malani Padayachee.
Consulting Engineers South Africa’s (Cesa’s) biannual recruitment survey, published in December 2011, reflected the following figures – a 5% participation by women in the professional engineers category, a 3.9% participation in the professional technical engineers category and a 9.4% participation in the professional technicians category.
Padayachee states that the numbers are a concern, but given the fact that Cesa often excludes the mining sector from its biannual survey, a large number of women participating in the mining consulting industry might not have been included.
“I believe female participation in the consulting sector is increasing, but [this is happening] slowly,” she states, adding that there is a lack of female role models to inspire girls to consider pursuing civil engineering as a career.
Further, she stresses that the engineering industry is not conducive to attracting women, owing to difficulties in balancing work and family life.
“If you look at the number of women graduating from engineering programmes it would appear that the gap between male and female engineers is closing, but most of the female graduates are actually employed by financial institutions and never register as practising engineers with the Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA).”
“Family responsibilities are more the domain of women than men. Therefore, women tend to work in financial institutions as project managers and not in the engineering sector, in which they qualified,” says Padayachee.
She explains that financial firms tend to offer a working environment that is more conducive to a woman’s social needs and provide flexible working hours, making it easier to balance work and family life.
Padayachee states that MPA is trying to change this trend by offering its female consulting engineers more flexibility.
“If it were not for the strong support struc- ture I have in my life, I would not have been able to accomplish what I did,” says Padayachee, reflecting on the success of MPA, which has a majority women equity ownership and celebrates its fifteenth anniversary this year.
The company points out that many women practising as consulting engineers run one-woman practices, as they have young children and lack adequate support structures to allow them to enter the field full time.
“These women do not have the time to join Cesa or ECSA initiatives.
“If, at least, there was a forum where their voices could be heard, young female students would have the confidence to pursue the possibility of balancing consulting engineering, and work and family life. That kind of message really needs to come through strongly,” Padayachee emphasises.
To ensure that graduates realise the importance of registering as practising engineers, MPA has a mentorship programme that guides graduates through the process.
“It is vital for graduates to get registered, which demonstrates they have the training and skills to function on their own as professionals,” the firm stresses.
Further, Padayachee says there are many unemployed female engineering graduates, owing to the unwillingness of some firms to hire inexperienced graduates.
“More programmes should be implemented to ensure this does not happen.”
The firm adds that the slow infrastructure roll-out by the public sector adds to the shortage of employment opportunities, as projects are not materialising fast enough.
Historically, many South African construction and engineering companies relied heavily on contracts awarded by the public sector, which has now substantially reduced its expen- diture on infrastructure development.
“Industry participants claim there is a short- age of engineers but consultants don’t want to employ graduates and prefer [to employ] experienced engineers. It is a catch-22 situation,” says Padayachee.
In addition, MPA says there are many young women in government positions functioning as project managers only.
Unfortunately, with the limited skills capacity in government, they are not gaining the required experience for ECSA registration, says Padayachee.
They are not exposed to design packages and are employed to make decisions for which they are not qualified.
“When these women want to re-enter the private sector, they are compared with individuals who have hands-on experience and salary negotiations tend to be problematic,” says Padayachee.
She adds that women in the consulting field are continuously required to prove their worth.
“As a female in this sector, you are constantly challenged, irrespective of your age or experience. After 22 years as a practising engineer I am still challenged on my technical ability,” notes Padayachee.
She stresses that knowledge is power and encourages women to use the skills and attributes they contribute to the sector to change the perception that it is a man’s job.
She points out that this perception is also prevalent among school learners who think of engineering as a hands-on construction job. “This perception should be tackled during life orientation and guidance counselling at schools to educate learners that engineering is a field suitable for males and females.”
Padayachee states that attributes such as a “big picture approach” and an ability to reprioritise at short notice are just a few skills that females bring to the consulting engineering sector.
Padayachee, who is a member of the ECSA board, says that, while she tries to change the stereotypes in the engineering industry, she is a lone voice and more women should come forward, take a stance, prove their abilities and make their voices heard.
She regularly has a high tea with the female workers in her organisation to help them deal with gender bias in an appropriate way. Members outside the organisation are also invited to attend.