Women Engineers in Africa: Pushing Past Old Roles

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Hema Vallabh is co-founder of WomEng (Women in Engineering) based in Johannesburg.

Knowledge@Wharton: I wonder if we could start by talking a little bit about WomEng?

Hema Vallabh: WomEng is a social enterprise that is pretty much focused on developing, retaining and getting more female engineers. It’s no secret that engineering is a very male-dominated sector. We work across the pipeline from high school where we create awareness and provide information to girls about choosing engineering as a career and breaking the misperceptions. We’re living in a fast-changing world where engineering isn’t what it was 30 years ago.

Our university-level program is a week-long technovation and business app scheme. It’s a two-pronged approach. It’s typically getting business-ready girl students who are studying engineering at the tertiary level. It’s about the skills that an academic education does not provide — soft skills and beyond that. It includes learning how to make an elevator pitch to entrepreneurial skills or intrapreneurial skills once you go into industry. Again, it’s about the way engineering is changing and the technovation side is a technical component.

We’re really about moving with the need, especially when the continent is growing. Everyone talks about Africa being the land of opportunity — there’s so much happening here. But what are we as engineers doing to contribute to this? It’s just getting to be hands-on — African solutions by Africans for Africans.

“We’re living in a fast-changing world where engineering isn’t what it was 30 years ago.”

There are a lot of cultural influences at play on the continent about the role of a woman, the role of the girl child, education. So we focus on a lot of those issues beyond just the technical side of it.

Knowledge@Wharton: What kind of special challenges — especially social challenges — do girls face in Africa that might stop them from making the mental leap to engineering as an area of study or even an area where they can make a career?

Vallabh: It’s a mindset shift not only in the girl child but in the family, the community and society as a whole. It’s what I said earlier and I’m, of course, generalizing.

But in the African context there’s a very specific place for the girl child. We don’t bring up our girls to believe that they should even finish school, far less pursue a tertiary education. Why would you do that? What are girls going to do? They get married, they have babies and they’re the mothers of the community. So why would you want an education? Why would you want to go and work?

That narrative needs to change and that’s a challenge we see. It comes at different levels. The core is changing the mindset of the girl child herself to believe she can; that’s why mentorship and role modeling is so important. But that doesn’t work in isolation. The second level is changing the mindset of the parents. Again, in the African context, many children have been raised by grandparents or they’re orphaned. Why should education be a priority when the village is starving? Or your brother has HIV-AIDS? Or you are the oldest sibling and have to look after your younger ones? Why is education a priority? So we need to start showing them that it’s an enabler and the momentum. You say: “Educate a woman, educate a village.”

“Engineering is historically male-dominated because it’s perceived as needing physical, brute force. Telecom breaks that perception. So we see more girls going there.”

That’s part of it. But we have to change the social context where girls are told, “Don’t be smart. You won’t find a husband.” So what do these girls do? They dumb themselves down. They don’t dream. More important, they are made to believe that finding a husband is the be all and end all of life.

Knowledge@Wharton: Are there some regions in African that are more open to engineering careers for girls?

Vallabh: There’s a difference between the rural areas and the urban areas. By virtue of the fact that you’re in a city, it means that your family has moved there with the hope of progressing in some way. Those children are more exposed.

Knowledge@Wharton: If you were to look at a typical engineering school in an African university, what percentage of students there are girls at the moment? And are the numbers changing?

Vallabh: It is changing but not fast enough. There’s a stat that says in Africa the number of students leaving tertiary with an engineering degree is around 10% and that’s supposed to be high. In Malawi, it is about 3%, if not lower. It’s not enough and it’s not changing.

“My personal belief is that engineering is moving from being about things … to being about people. And who is better equipped to be a part of that journey than women?”

Knowledge@Wharton: Engineering is such a broad field. Are there some areas of engineering where you find you can break through the glass ceiling faster?

Vallabh: Yes and no. In Kenya, which is the telecommunications hub, there is a higher percentage of girls going to telecom. Engineering is historically male-dominated because it’s perceived as needing physical, brute force. Telecom breaks that perception. So we see more girls going there.

In South Africa, the popular choices are chemical engineering and industrial engineering. Something like industrial engineering is perceived as less physical and less masculine. So it’s very much based on perceptions.

Knowledge@Wharton: If you want to make a mark in any field, it helps to have role models. At WomEng, have you identified African women engineers who can serve as role models?

Vallabh: Mentorship for us is the key. It’s the goal that ties the organization together. Mentorship is essentially role modeling. It’s seeing a real, live engineer.

You have the big success stories but also everyday engineers — our mothers, our aunts and our sisters. It’s these women who are practicing on a daily basis as engineers. They are probably married, have kids and are living “a normal life.” These role models are more important for me than the big success stories.

Knowledge@Wharton: Even in the U.S., which is ostensibly more open to a wide range of careers for women, there has been this issue of disparity between what men are paid and what women are paid for the same jobs. To what degree does this problem exist in Africa?

Vallabh: It’s a global issue. It’s not limited to engineering. But, in Africa, we’re not brought up to talk about money. It’s something that’s a very hush, hush subject. Add the nuance of being a woman on top of that… We ask our HR practitioners, “Well, how many women actually negotiate their salary?” It’s a really low percentage because, one, they don’t know how to; two, they don’t know that they’re allowed to.

Knowledge@Wharton: Where do you see engineering careers for women going in the future — the next three to five years?

Vallabh: For me, the engineering industry is changing. If you switch on the news today, what are the subjects you hear about? Population growth, climate change, food security — all these subjects are around people, around community. My personal belief is that engineering is moving from being about things — because I think the industrial revolution was really around structures and things — to being about people. And who is better equipped to be a part of that journey than women?

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