The importance of role models

"It is only when I saw people that looked like me, doing the things that I wanted to do, that I realised what was possible" #anengineeralsolookslikeme

The month of August is National Women's Month in South Africa. This month is dedicated to celebrating women's achievements and the important role that women have played and continue to play in South African society.


As we kick-off Women's Month, I am reminded of how when I started my career in engineering, I struggled to reconcile whether I fit in the engineering industry. There was this popular image presented by mainstream media of what an engineer looks like and at the time, I believed that I did not fit the image. As a young woman in engineering, I would often wonder why there were so few engineers that looked like me and I began to question whether I would be successful in this industry.


This belief gradually changed as I engaged with phenomenal female engineers in the industry (incl. Welekazi Cele, Anneri Robinson and Lindiwe Ngwenya, and many others).


The Challenge


Globally, women remain underrepresented in fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). An inclusive society will benefit from women and men equally contributing towards solving some of the most critical global challenges. Based on my personal observations, these are some of the reasons women remain underrepresented in the engineering industry:

1. Few female role models working in engineering roles in male dominated workplaces

2. Lack of mentorship opportunities for young women in engineering

3. Conscious or unconscious bias in the workplace which precludes women from growth opportunities

4. Workplace environments and corporate cultures which are neither diverse nor inclusive; and which do not actively seek to engage and retain female engineers.


These are only a few of the reasons and the list can be quite extensive. An article has recently been published in the July Issue of the South African Institution of Civil Engineering (SAICE) Magazine , which discusses some of the challenges with inequality in South Africa, specifically as it applies to women in the engineering sector. The article discusses the notable increase in the number of women entering the engineering space and that the retention of women in the sector still remains a key issue.

Role models & mentors to improve the representation of women in the engineering sector?


Notwithstanding the structural, behavioral, environmental and policy solutions that need to be implemented in the industry; one of the ways to improve the representation of women in the engineering industry is to deliberately introduce diverse role models and mentors, particularly role models and mentors, with whom women are able to relate to and those that challenge the stereotypes around a career in engineering. This needs to happen at various levels of development including, basic education, tertiary education and in the industry. This can be facilitated through a variety of deliberate and intentional programmes and platforms. My opening statement which reads: "It is only when I saw people that looked like me, doing the things that I wanted to do, that I realised what was possible" suggests that if young girls/ women see others succeeding in the industry, they too will be inspired and motivated to pursue careers in this field.


What can I do today?


I believe that we are unraveling as an industry, we are engaging in discussions about diversity and inclusion and how we can create an environment where everyone feels like they belong, irrespective of their differences. I am inspired by the many organisations and individuals that are openly engaging on the challenges and those actively seeking solutions and taking action. This is part of the reason I have recently taken on the role as Diversity and Inclusion Champion for the South African Institution of Civil Engineering (SAICE), because being a catalyst for change in the industry resonates with me.


As women in engineering, we need to actively engage in dialogue about the industry and share some of the lessons we are learning as professionals, with the intent that it may help a young female engineer that may feel lost. But most importantly, we need to do this, to be seen, because by being seen, we are indirectly encouraging someone to come out of the shadows and step into the light. This is part of the reason I founded SHEngineers.

In Closing

There are many women in engineering that are winning battles silently and as we share our stories, we begin to strip away the popular image of what an engineer looks like. I believe that interventions, even if done at a small scale, can contribute towards shifting the needle and to alter the popular image and belief of who belongs in engineering.


With thanks - this article was written by Innocentia Mahlangu.

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