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

Women’s Day is being celebrated on Thursday. But whether there should be a celebration is a contentious issue considering the scale of violence being perpetrated against women and children.

Entrenching a paternalistic view and ensuring the subjugation of women in society are views held by prominent businessmen such as SA Institution of Civil Engineering’s (SAICE) CEO Manglin Pillay. To the astonishment of many he authored a column in which he questioned the place of women in the profession.

Pillay asked 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 held an emergency meeting on Wednesday to discuss his comments, which were made in the industry magazine's July issue.

In an open letter to Pillay, Fin24 reported, UCT dean of the faculty of engineering and the built environment, Professor Alison Lewis, strongly disagreed with Pillay, saying 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. 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.

Hema Vallabh has an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering, and a postgraduate qualification in Catalysis, from the University of Cape Town. Photo: Facebook

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.

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.

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're 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.