Women’s empowerment makes the workplace warmer

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There have been some great success stories with women’s empowerment initiatives within the engineering sector. However, there still remains an urgent need to empower women in engineering and society, and to encourage women and girls to enter the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.

Supporting women in the work environment empowers them to face their unique workplace challenges with confidence. Women often find it easier to assert themselves in their own environment. However, when we are out, meeting clients, we need to prove ourselves, time and again.

Shifting corporate culture

Women’s empowerment is not just about chasing headcount. The idea is to improve the workplace through a cultural shift.

However, the political will to drive women’s empowerment needs to come from leadership. Women are different and management needs to create the space for them to feel comfortable in their difference. Only then we can unlock their best contribution.

The Institute of Directors have recognised that effective boards are gender representative and are pushing for a 33% women’s representation on boards. For me, it’s about acknowledging and driving freedom of expression from women.

We can also make men more aware of the need for women’s empowerment. Men whom we engage with at workshops often have the mindset of “We don’t see gender”, which shows a lack of awareness of how women experience being marginalised and their role in supporting women in the work environment.

Besides the technical contribution women make in organisations through their professional skills, women empowerment also shifts corporate culture.

At GIBB, we measure culture. Our KPIs measure our contributions to our team’s happiness. This supports empathetic relations and encourages employees to be more expressive.

Another distinctive aspect of our culture at GIBB is that we love cake. We have cake parties to celebrate our successes. Whenever we win projects, if somebody graduates with a PhD or a Masters, it’s cake-party time. Especially in the environmental sector. In total, 35% of our workforce are women.

Part of women’s contribution is their womanliness. A transformed workplace might see a lot more hugging. It’s fine to hug. There should be more hugs in the corporate world — to encourage, to congratulate and to reconcile.

It’s also women’s approach to talk more, to be more communicative and this will always benefit an organisation, where communication is the very lifeblood of success.

There’s still a long way to go

Women and girls are still poorly represented in the STEM fields worldwide especially in engineering.

This is what we hope to remedy with the Techno Girls programme we are involved in with the Department for Women, Children and People with Disabilities (DWCPD), in partnership with UNICEF and the Department of Basic Education (DBE). It is a job-shadowing programme for girls, with a bias toward STEM careers.

Women’s role models always tend to be more traditionally feminine. It’s the boys who usually want to be the pilot, or the engineer. To change this, we need to catch girls young and say, “You can actually be anything you want to be.”

We must change role definitions, but we still have a responsibility to ensure that the workplace enables women’s contributions. When women do come through the STEM field, there needs to be a culture of acceptance of what women bring to the table and a work environment that values their contributions.

Dr Urishanie Govender, GIBB Engineering Environmental Services Sector General Manager

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