The Protea Network – for women working in the predominantly male-dominated steel and other market sectors – is growing steadily and organically since its launch in April, says steel fabrication company Betterect MD Nicolette Skjoldhammer.
She launched the network to provide women in the industry with the opportunity to connect and mentor one another.
“I started the Protea Network after I was challenged to establish it by my colleagues in the steel sector. These women are all dealing with similar career challenges individually, and were looking for a common source of collective connection and support.”
The Protea Network is endorsed by the South African Institute of Steel Construction (SAISC), of which Skjoldhammer is currently the chairperson.
“The SAISC feels strongly about growing women’s participation in the industry, and so it supports our endeavours to empower, mentor and grow women in business,” she tells Engineering News.
Skjoldhammer adds that the SAISC has witnessed the growth of women who have been appointed into senior positions in the steel and other industries, and recognises the vital role which these women have played and continue to play.
She believes that it is important for women to build connections with each other because the perception that their skills are inferior to those of their male counterparts still exists.
“This perception unfortunately works against women, as it creates remuneration disparities and limits the career opportunities available to them.”
The Protea Network is aimed at being a constructive movement, designed to assist talented women in growing and assuming positions of leadership and authority within their respective sectors.
“I believe that a woman’s point of view is a fundamental necessity to achieving creative, agile solutions in the changing economic climate,” Skjoldhammer says, adding that she is encouraged to see growth in awareness around women’s involvement in the steel sector, which is starting to address the need for inclusivity, transformation and mentorships.
Skjoldhammer adds that while some women may feel discouraged about their career prospects in the current economy – which has undoubtedly been very adversely impacted on by the Covid-19 pandemic and national lockdown – there are always opportunities for growth, even in a shrinking economic environment.
“The key is to find the growth points in the economy and connect with them – this is why the network is so crucial and beneficial. The steel sector was, for example, already under severe economic pressure before Covid-19. However, there are still several companies in this market which are turning the challenges into successes.”
She says members of the network are finding that the network provides the support that they need during the current economic slowdown.
Skjoldhammer says the objective of the network for this year is to encourage and facilitate online forum membership, where members can engage on a daily basis.
She notes that the next step will be to host a meaningful virtual event this month, where women can further connect, engage and network.
“We envision that women will also frequently visit the online forum to interact with mentors and post questions on an ongoing basis. We want our members to regard the network as a space in which they can enrich themselves and grow in their careers and lives – and to encourage others to do so too,” she says.
Skjoldhammer believes that transforming the industry effectively requires mentors to serve as examples to the younger generation of women, exposing them to women of all ages, ethnicities and cultures.
She adds that being exposed to successful women in the industry can help younger women visualise their occupying similar roles.
“The long-term strategic intent of the Protea Network is to retain and develop women in industry, to grow the pool of opportunity and possibility for all South African businesswomen and to nurture future female business talent,” Skjoldhammer concludes.