Science and Technology Minister slams engineering body CEO's comments on women

Science and Technology Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane has joined in criticism of a column written by SA Institution of Civil Engineering CEO Manglin Pillay, in which he questioned the place of women in the profession.

"The (SAICE) CEO’s remarks are really out of order. It’s just unfortunate in the month of August, [Women’s Month] because we should be looking at how to support women," Kubayi-Ngubane said in an interview with Fin24 on Tuesday.

Outrage has been growing over the content of a Pillay's latest column, which appeared in the July edition of SAICE's Civil Engineering magazine, in which he questioned whether South Africa should be investing so heavily into attracting women into science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. According to his column, evidence showed women are "predisposed" to caring and people-orientated careers.

Kubayi-Ngubane dismissed Pillay’s argument, saying the majority of matric learners passing science and maths are female, but they require assistance at university and beyond to stay the course.

"The reason for the drop-out rate is that there isn’t sufficient support," Kubayi-Ngubane said.

The minister said the STEM fields should become more cognisant of the challenges women face, such as wanting to have children while working. "Why should we give women a choice between having a family and a career?" she asked.

According to figures Pillay quoted in his column "Out on a rib", out of SAICE’s almost 16 000 strong database, 17% are women and out of the 6% professionally registered members, just 5% are female.

Practical steps

Kubayi-Ngubane advised that practical steps STEM-related fields could take to support women include establishing child-friendly facilities and becoming aware of how long working hours affect home lives.

Pillay had quoted from a study by Leeds Beckett's School of Social Sciences and the University of Missouri in his column that women in gender-equal societies choose care or people-orientated careers while men tend to choose careers that orient them to "things" and mechanics.

Pillay had written that women prefer not to occupy high-profile executive posts because they would rather have "the flexibility to dedicate themselves to more important enterprises like family and raising children than to be at the beck and call of shareholders".

Kubayi-Ngubane pointed to South African women traditionally choosing careers in nursing or teaching as a legacy of apartheid, but said that times have changed. Women have the capacity and intelligence to excel in male-dominated fields, she said, but they need the support.

She said her department was supporting a women in space programme and was receiving several hundred applications every year for the South African Women in Science Awards.

Meanwhile, SAICE will hold an emergency board meeting on Wednesday to discuss Pillay’s comments about women. The engineering body has said it would issue a statement on the matter following the outcome of the meeting.

Several institutions have spoken out against Pillay, including the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment at the University of Cape Town, and infrastructure advisory group Aurecon, who called for an official apology to the women of SA.

Meanwhile WomEng, an advocacy group which aims to attract more females into the engineering profession, launched an online petition demanding Pillay be removed from his position as SAICE CEO to send a message that the industry will not tolerate discrimination.

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