By Anja van den Berg
Female retention in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) remains a persistent problem. Even after overcoming hurdles to entering the profession, women leave at much higher rates than men, often because of the stress that comes with being female in a male-dominated field.
This is according to the findings of Teresa Cardador, an associate professor of labour and employment relations, and Brianna Caza, an associate professor at Manitoba’s Asper School of Business.
Their research report states that the stress can be quite overt, such as when women face instances of gender discrimination or harassment. However, stressors are often subtle, such as feeling that their contributions are less valued than those of their male peers because tasks and roles have been gendered.
When experienced daily, this kind of subtle stress can become debilitating.
The South African Institution of Civil Engineering’s (SAICE) former CEO Manglin Pillay was recently thrust into the spotlight for all the wrong reasons after he authored a column in which he questioned the place of women in the profession.
In an article in the June 2018 edition of Civil Engineering Magazine titled Out on a Rib, Pillay claimed investment in women in the field needed rethinking because they were more predisposed to work in caring and people-oriented careers.
Citing some research, Pillay essentially argued that women were better suited to care for children than to work in the STEM field. He said this explains the underrepresentation of women in the engineering field.
The article caused an uproar. Pillay has since apologised for his sexism after an outcry from many women, including the Minister of Science and Technology, Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane.
“Regardless of the apology, we need to understand what kinds of attitudes inform Pillay’s thinking,” says Amanda Gouws, Professor of Political Science and SARChi Chair in Gender Politics, Stellenbosch University. “He is not alone in this thinking and an apology doesn’t mean that attitudes have changed.”
Statistics from the Engineering Council of South Africa showed that 70% of the women who graduated with engineering degrees left the sector after starting their careers because they felt isolated in their jobs.
Research at Network Engineering, a leading specialist recruitment agency, reveals that professional South African female engineers continue to battle old stigmas in this male-dominated industry.
“Despite being managers, these women report having to work harder to prove they are capable of doing their jobs, both behind their desks and in the field, says Marna Thompson, senior branch manager at Network Engineering.
“They can’t ask too many questions for fear of appearing weak, nor be too assertive for fear of being labelled aggressive; they can’t show emotion in case they appear too sensitive, and they constantly have to fight the perception that they were only hired to meet employment equity quotas.”
Marna says that a common thread running through their findings is that, because of the prevailing mentality, women engineers perpetually feel they are not valued as highly as their male counterparts and that they are not good enough for their respective positions, leading to immense self-doubt.
These conditions are to the detriment not only of the industry but the country as a whole. The UN’s International Labour Organisation has long highlighted the urgent need for countries to address gender discrimination in the scientific and technological fields and to change the traditional attitudes that exist in these sectors, saying that failure to do so constitutes an obstacle to nations’ progress.
Gender disparity seems to be playing a prominent role in South Africa’s dearth of competent engineers, hamstringing development in the process.
Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2016/08/why-do-so-many-women-who-study-engineering-leave-the-field
The Conversation: https://theconversation.com/dont-blame-women-for-leaving-fields-like-engineering-blame-bad-attitudes-101853
Pro Bono Matters: https://probonomatters.co.za/2018/08/mysogynistic-views-lands-saice-ceo-manglin-pillay-in-hot-water/
Mail & Guardian: https://mg.co.za/article/2015-08-22-women-engineers-quit-over-mens-attitudes
The Conversation: http://theconversation.com/what-fewer-women-in-stem-means-for-their-mental-health-47446
Huffington Post: https://www.huffingtonpost.co.za/priyanka-padayachee/we-have-too-few-women-engineers-in-south-africa_a_21703682/
Brand South Africa: https://www.brandsouthafrica.com/investments-immigration/science-technology/women-science-awards
Engineering News: http://www.engineeringnews.co.za/article/what-south-africa-could-gain-from-having-more-women-in-stem-2018-07-05/rep_id:4136