The development of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills are critical to the future advancement of South Africa. Skilled professionals in these fields will help accelerate development in many industries and contribute to South Africa’s competitiveness on the global stage.

Whilst strides have been made to accelerate interest in STEM related fields, the numbers paint a disproportionate picture, men continue to vastly outnumber women, not only in institutions of higher learning but also in the workplace. Even more glaring is the significantly low number of women choosing engineering as a career path, which if reversed could help bridge the country’s critical skills gap.

According to a recent report by the Engineering Council of South Africa, only 6% of professional engineers in South Africa are female. However, the real number of female engineers in the mining industry, where women only make up 14% of the total workforce, is difficult to determine.

“Women have successfully infiltrated areas such as law, medicine and education to mention a few, but engineering and specifically the mining industry is perceived to be environmentally, both professionally and geographically, a tough industry. However, the rewards of working in this industry I think are often overlooked and not talked about enough. The work is challenging, but it is also interesting and diverse. There are a lot of positives within the industry and the changes that this industry can make to communities and, indeed, entire countries, should be celebrated,” says electronic engineer Ingrid Osborne, who is also CEO and co-founder of Saryx Engineering Group.

Osborne founded the company with Julie Mathieson, a computer scientist. The two women are trailblazers in the traditionally male dominated mining industry, having founded their award-winning digital solution HSEC Online® which has been adopted by a number of major mining companies. The solution allows companies and contractors to securely capture, store, distribute and manage health and safety compliance documents online and in real-time.

“We wanted a company that worked the way all companies should strive to, by creating equal opportunities for all and in an environment that was supportive and inviting. And I think we have done that. Women make up 60-70% of our workforce, 50% of our senior management team and 100% of the executive team. We are award winning and continue to develop and engineer solutions that are disruptive and at the forefront of technology,” adds Osborne.

Osborne believes that having female role models in the industry is key to bridging the skills gap of women in engineering and other STEM fields. Danielle Le Roux, a young female computer scientist who is working as HSEC Online® Customer Success and Implementation Manager, agrees that this can go a long way in inspiring more girls to take on STEM careers, “We have very little representation at the moment and having more female role models shows young women out there that it is possible and doable if you follow your passion,” says Le Roux.

Fourth year megatronics engineering student at UCT, Sigrid Aadnesgaard, who was inspired by her mother, a Quantity Surveyor and Osborne, adds that more practical solutions need to be pursued at basic education level. “I think that schools, especially all-girls schools, should offer subjects such as EGD, Computer Science and Design, as these subjects will encourage more girls to feel confident going into engineering degrees. I think there is a big space for women in the field, the women who I study with are extremely capable and confident in their ability,” says Aadnesgaard.

According to the Mineral’s Council of South Africa, despite positive strides in transformation of the workplace, women are still plagued by bullying, unconscious bias, sexism, victimisation and gender-based violence in the mining industry.

“I think there are still some old perceptions that linger in the dusty corners of our industry, where, as a woman, your abilities may be questioned or perceived to be something other than they are, but I find if you get on with the job at hand, things sort themselves out pretty quickly. This reminds me of the quote by Edith Clarke, “There is no demand for women engineers, as such, as there are for women doctors; but there’s always a demand for anyone who can do a good piece of work,” says Osborne.

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