Although South Africa’s engineering sector is making progress in attracting women in both technical and leadership roles, the journey ahead remains a long and challenging one, especially in the defence industry.
According to statistics by South African NGO Women in Engineering (WomEng), women still make up less than 20% of all engineering graduates, with the number active in the sector even lower.
This reality is alarming, considering the need for engineering in South Africa. As reported on earlier this year, statistics from the Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA) indicated that the international benchmark of engineers per population shows that South Africa lags behind globally. In South Africa, the ration of engineers to population is approximately 1:2600.
With this in mind, Saab Grintek Defence (SGD), a local defence and security company, initiated a Women’s Development Programme to empower South African women to pursue engineering-based careers. Through the programme, increasing numbers of new female entrants are not only joining the defence industry, but are also receiving the necessary support to sustain a rewarding career in the defence industry.
Since the launch of the programme in 2015 the representation of women in the company’s technical fields has grown by 40%.
Two such programme candidates are charting a new way for young girls considering a career in the engineering field.
Caitlin Kenny, a young microwave design engineer from Boksburg, joined SGD in January 2016 after completing her Masters’ degree entitled ‘Wideband Antenna for 4G MIMO Applications’.
“I think women need to be better represented in the engineering fields,” she says.
“It’s encouraging to be part of a company that makes such a big difference, but I think this development work should start at a much earlier stage. If girls could be exposed to the industry earlier in their school careers, we would make huge progress.”
Rita Jose, has been a junior industrial engineer at SGD since 2016, having joined the company’s bursary programme in 2014. She hopes to contribute personally to the development of young girls in engineering.
“I think female representation in the workplace has improved over time,” she says.
“When I was studying, there were always a lot more men than women, but now we work in an office of ten people, and five are women. I want to grow as a technical engineer and grow into a leadership position, so I can help break the stereotype that women can’t be successful in a technical field.”
She hopes to develop a mentorship programme for young women, guiding them in how to thrive in the defence industry, which is perceived as a male-dominated industry, and not just in engineering.
While the engineering industry has a long way to go before women are equally represented, it seems to be making necessary steps in the right direction. Programmes such as the SGD Women’s Development Programme bring more female graduates into the system, while mentorship and academic support at all levels are sure to encourage race and gender diversity at all levels.