Women engineers speak out: From no female toilets to being mistaken for a secretary

Women engineers are speaking up about the negative experiences they have had working in the industry, following remarks made by a male CEO.

The South African Institution of Civil Engineering’s (SAICE) CEO Manglin Pillay was thrust into the spotlight for all the wrong reasons after he authored a column in which he questioned the place of women in the profession. 

Concluding the column, "Out on a rib", Pillay asks if there should be investment in attracting women to the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), or investment in creating more gender equal societies.

The SAICE board will hold an emergency meeting on Wednesday to discuss the comments Pillay made in his column in the industry magazine's July issue.

Meanwhile, institutions have spoken out against Pillay. In an open letter to Pillay, UCT dean of the faculty of engineering and the built environment, Professor Alison Lewis, said the only way to address gender inequality is to inspire girls to join STEM careers and to change work environments to support women's contributions.

Lewis also questioned SAICE's commitment to supporting a more inclusive and diverse profession. Lewis requested that SAICE share its strategy to transform the civil engineering profession.

WomENG, an organisation for women in engineering, on Monday issued an online petition calling for Pillay to be removed as CEO.

Women engineers shared with Fin24 some of the challenges they face working in the profession. 

Hema Vallabh has an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering, and a postgraduate qualification in Catalysis, from the University of Cape Town. She spent about six years working in the oil and gas industry.

Naadiya Moosajee qualified with an undergraduate degree in civil engineering and a masters degree in transport engineering from the University of Cape Town.

Kamentha Pillay is an electrical engineer and spent 10 years in the petrochemical industry before changing careers to become a business analyst. She has an MBA and is completing her doctorate in Industrial, Organisation and Labour studies.

Fin24: What are some of the challenges encountered during your professional life as a female engineer?

Hema: As a young engineer, you don’t feel like you have a voice to speak out, as you’re told that you’re overreacting. I’ve also worked on plants that have no female toilets, or where the only other female was the cleaning lady, whom I had to always search for in order to get the key to the facility.

The more common experiences, which many others have also shared, include walking into a meeting as the senior engineer, but being mistaken for the secretary and/or being asked to get the coffee for everyone. I’ve also been in meetings as the senior engineer but had the stakeholders turn to my junior white male counterpart for any technical questions and/or approval instead of me.

Naadiya: I worked in the industry and had a good set of mentors. You often get mistaken for the assistant. I even had a client who refused [to let] me to meet with them, and my senior engineer had to fly down and sit through meetings, even though I did all the work. He was an excellent mentor and would redirect the client to me, a true 'He for She' champ. But working in the sector and working to transform it has not been an easy path.

Unfortunately the SAICE CEO's views are not isolated. I recall a meeting with the CEO of one the largest construction companies in South Africa. He had one female manager out of 149 managers. We presented a strategy on attraction and retention of female engineers. He said outright that he wouldn’t spend money for women to sit around and go "cluck cluck cluck" - that’s a direct quote.

Kamentha: It’s different for everyone; it depends on the environment. Someone in consulting may not experience it in the same way as someone at a plant or a construction environment.

People in my immediate team respected me immensely. I did not have an awkward or negative experience with people in my direct team. But I had to deal with contractors and a lot of teams from other business units. When on site, you get a lot of cat calls and people passing remarks to you with sexual innuendos.

Despite working for corporates with some of the best policies, these things are still prevalent because of the culture of the industry and the mindset of individuals there. Companies can put policies in place but the mindset of males is the thing that needs to change.

Fin24: Do professional bodies such as SAICE recognise the concerns of women?

Hema: Manglin Pillay didn’t just write the article; it must have been reviewed, edited, and still allowed to be published. Then SAICE, the organisation he leads, simply distanced themselves for the views of the man they appointed to represent them, but took no action in the past two weeks, indicating that they don’t see a real problem with this.

The system is broken. The industry is still run by people who share this viewpoint, albeit often more discreetly. I have no doubt that there are many who share in Manglin’s viewpoint, it’s just that he made them public. There is still much work to be done to break the patriarchy that exists in the system.

Naadiya: I served on [the] SAICE regional committee in the Western Cape for a year. Our chapter recognised the issue of bringing more women and young engineers to the table. It boils down to leadership. The head at the time was a female engineer. Unfortunately, if leadership does not see it as important, or you have a CEO who uses the platform to express blatant sexism, they won’t recognise those concerns. You see it in their membership numbers as well.

Kamentha: Companies can have policies in place, but managers' interpretations of policies is where the main problem lies. They can interpret it in their own way, and make decisions in their own team that limit women in those teams.

Fin24: Do you believe greater investment should be made in attracting and retaining women in STEM in SA?

Hema: Without even a shadow of a doubt! The world is changing. The engineering industry is changing. Engineering is no longer simply about physical things, and the likes of the industrial revolution and the grease-ridden man in a hard hat that goes with that picture. Today when we talk about engineering, topics like climate change, population growth [and] food security are top of the list – these all talk to a focus on people and communities. Women bring a diverse viewpoint and dynamic that is needed to start addressing these bigger issues of a fast changing world.

Naadiya: Yes! It boils down to what engineers do. They design and create everything around us. If you exclude half of the population from that process, you designing a world which women need to constantly adapt to because our needs are never considered in the design process. It’s not just that only 11% of the engineering workforce is female. Companies and our partners at WomEng have indicated it’s about bringing diversity to innovate.

Kamentha: There's not enough investment; it’s starting to pick up. It’s becoming a trend because perhaps people are seeing what larger companies are doing in Silicon Valley.

Countries and organisations must make a concerted effort to bring women into the field. Part of the country’s duty to its citizens is to ensure that there is diversity, and that women are treated fairly in society and not just the workplace. When you start changing national culture, you start changing organisational culture. National culture plays a lot into how organisations treat women. We have a lot of work to do as a developing nation, and companies and bodies like SAICE could be doing a lot to set an example and have government look at these example and consider investing more.

The responsibility is on all of us to change society.

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