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We Have Too Few Women Engineers In South Africa -- Here's What We Can Do To Fix That

Many women engineers say they left the industry because of the gender-bias they experienced. More women-to-women mentorship can help new entrants cope.

03/02/2017 04:55 SAST | Updated 03/02/2017 04:55 SAST
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Professional Mining Engineer in Training at Anglo American Coal South Africa, Priyanka Padayachee.

The world is awash with catchphrases to describe gender imbalances in the world of work. From "gender gap" to the "glass ceiling" we have more ways of describing the imbalance, than actual ideas to solve it. The image of a "glass ceiling" is stark: essentially, there is an "upper limit" that is set for you as a woman, and you dare not pierce through it, even though you can see beyond it.

The fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are no strangers to the gender imbalance. Recent data alone shows that last year (2016), women make up only 23% of STEM talent globally. Addressing this gap must be prioritised if we are to truly transform this large industry, starting with, I believe, woman-to-woman mentorship.

In 2013, the Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA) said almost 11% of the total number of engineers registered with the council were women, but that professional women engineers totalled only 4%. Many of the women engineers surveyed said they left the industry because of the gender-bias they experienced.

What will happen if we don't get woman-to-woman mentorship right?

The economy and quality of life will weaken. In 2015, Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), Irina Bokova, said an estimated 2.5 million new engineers and technicians are required in sub-Saharan Africa to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) of improved access to clean water and sanitation. South Africa is severely under-engineered and has only 15000 engineers. One engineer services approximately 2 666 people whereas internationally, one engineer services 40 people, a number far too small to meet the MDGs currently.

We need more women working in STEM careers to fill the skills gap, strengthening the science and technology sector, which is vital to reducing poverty, creating job opportunities and increasing agricultural and industrial productivity. In this way, the economy will become stronger and the nation will benefit as a whole.

Women in technology will create diversity because problems and opportunities in the world cannot be tackled from just a male view alone, women bring with them a necessary advantage. Creating diversity in gender helps companies evolve and open new channels. If we fail to include more women in the science and technology sectors, we may miss out on untapped potential and perhaps never discover the next Marie Curie, who against the toughest of odds conducted pioneering research into radioactivity and is to this day, the only person to receive a Nobel prize in two different sciences.

The lack of representation may not entirely be the reason why fewer women get into, and stay, in STEM careers, but it does raise interesting questions about the need for quality, structured woman-to-woman mentorship.

Representation is everything

By sharing our personal journeys to successful STEM careers, young girls can visualise the path to high achievement and are likely to believe that it is possible to succeed in STEM careers. For many young girls, just seeing the successes of the women around them is enough to spark the passion to pursue rewarding technical careers. Seeing is believing and it is how we use these personal interactions to inspire a passion for a future previously just not considered.

The lack of representation may not entirely be the reason why fewer women get into, and stay, in STEM careers, but it does raise interesting questions about the need for quality, structured woman-to-woman mentorship. The numbers are telling. Reading a report from the Gordon Institute of Business on the long-term retention of women in chemical and metallurgical engineering, was both opening and concerning. The report found that 80% of women engineers had male mentors, and a mere 20% were mentored by women.

I'm not saying that male mentors are not skilled to provide mentorship, there is no gender bias here. But, the truth is that women engineers can relate to other women engineers who face or have faced similar challenges in their careers.

The Mentorship Challenge

It holds true that as women in STEM careers, we need to get involved in developing rising stars and inspire them to pursue their own STEM careers. But being a mentor is sometimes misunderstood. Often, a mentor is seen as someone who a young person wants to become. That is imitation; while being the sincerest form of flattery, doesn't have a strong enough impact on young girls to develop a personal action plan to pursue careers in STEM. Most of us have been positively impacted by a mentor at some point in our careers. They have encouraged and challenged us to think differently.

Outreach programmes that actively connect mentors and mentees have proved very successful.

A weak excuse I often hear is that we are too busy or inaccessible to commit to mentoring a girl. Really? Hasn't technology made it easier than ever to connect with each other from anywhere in the world at any time? We are digitally-savvy and electronic devices like smartphones are becoming cheaper and more accessible to young women. Online motivational talks, face-timing with a mentor, communicating via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat are ways mentors can reach young women.

Skills programmes have demonstrated the power of mentorships in STEM career paths. A skills programme called Techno Girls has proven that women-to-women mentorship works. This programme is underpinned by the notion of girl-to-girl mentorship, inspiring girls of the same age in similar situations to start the journey of achieving success at a micro level.

An early participant in the programme, Lerato Mhlongo, said her experience in Techno Girls gave her the power to achieve her dreams as she was surrounded by ambitious women who always motivated her to believe in herself.

Outreach programmes that actively connect mentors and mentees have proved very successful. For example, TechWomen, is a US initiative that empowers, connects, and supports the next generation of female leaders in STEM from Africa, Central Asia, and the Middle East. It provides them with the access and opportunity to advance their careers, pursue their dreams, and inspire women and girls in their communities.

As women pursue STEM careers, more and more young girls will see career opportunities open to them and seize them. With more women in the field, young girls will understand how much they can offer the world with a STEM career.