The engineering industry needs to change the conversation around gender equity, says Wiebke Toussaint, a data scientist at the University of Cape Town and co-founder of Engineers Without Borders South Africa.
She spoke to Fin24 following the removal of the CEO of the South African Institution of Civil Engineering (SAICE), Manglin Pillay, over his comments about the role of women in the engineering profession in a column.
Toussaint said it was "encouraging" to see many male engineers speaking out about Pillay and sexism in the industry.
Pillay was removed from his position earlier this month following criticism from SAICE members and the public over his column ‘Out on a rib” in a July trade magazine. In the column he questioned whether there should be investment in attracting women to the science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM fields, as women were better suited to people or caring work.
Toussaint told Fin24 that the promotion of gender equity in engineering needs to go beyond programmes that attract girls to STEM professions. She warned that the industry could risk adopting the misconception that education alone could correct systemic inequalities.
“Expanding the pipeline of young women engineers into sectors that are unwilling to create environments in which women can flourish professionally will continue to result in dismal retention rates,” she said.
Pillay’s column cited SAICE’s figures showing that out of the engineering body’s 16 000 member database only 17% are women – a sharp decrease from the 31% female student members. As seniority increases, this number drops further. Of the 6 000 professionally registered civil engineers, only 5% are women.
Toussaint recommends that leaders in the engineering industry approach transformation using measurable, transparent goals, by assigning budgets and reporting on progress on a regular basis.
“If the engineering sector were to treat broad-based diversity as an engineering problem rather than an afterthought, we could celebrate a transformed sector within the next five years."
Engineers Without Borders South Africa, a non-governmental organisation, aims to assist engineers to strengthen communities which Toussaint believes requires diverse teams of engineers who will be able to overcome subjectivity and bias to design environments that consider the needs of all people.
“Caring is not a woman thing. Caring is what makes us human. Engineers that do not care will build dystopias. That alone, is the greatest reason to address the absence of transformation in the engineering sector with urgency”, she concluded.
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