1. What does your everyday work entail?
I work at an international company and work on Solar PV projects. My project teams are located in different locations across the globe. I connect with the teams through an internet platform, emails, telephonically and sometimes even Skype. I work from home since all I need is a computer with internet access and a telephone. This has its pros and cons. Instead of spending an hour in traffic I can get some work done and get ahead of the day. However, working alone can become lonely at times. I occasionally work at coffee shops to be around people or on days when I am feeling unproductive at home. I am always checking project statuses and thinking of ways to push projects forward, this includes, managing and motivating people to deliver on their work. I conduct meetings, do quality checking and sometimes even do some business development work.
2. What career path led you to your current work?
Initially, I was supposed to work for Sasol, however, the economy had a big crash and Sasol was impacted. Bursars were no longer required to do a work back period, in fact they were not really even hiring their bursars (only 1-2 got jobs out of about 16). I was incredibly disappointed as I had been looking forward to working in an environment which would entail Research and Development work. I loved what I was doing, but I struggled to find a job in the field. It frustrated me that I often came across articles expressing a need for engineers and scientists in South Africa but in reality, I just was not getting employed!
After about 2 years of aggressively job hunting, I decided to look elsewhere and had to make peace with the fact that I may never work in my chosen field. I applied for a Management Consulting job and got a job at Accenture. I stayed at Accenture for a year, where I gained valuable business skills, but I missed having a technical component to my work. I resigned and started networking again. I met someone who said they were looking for people at a Renewable Energy firm, I applied and got the job. This is where I currently find myself positioned.
3. How did you decide to move into this career path?-was it a certain person or moment which initiated it all?
I had applied to study IT. I also enjoyed Biology and the Sciences, but the truth is that without a bursary I would’ve been forced to find employment as my family simply didn’t have the funds to send me to a tertiary institute. After being awarded a Sasol bursary I studied a Chemistry Degree at Rand Afrikaans Universiteit; where I was able to major in both Chemistry and Informatics. I did an honours in Chemistry, but I didn’t have a preference for the laboratory environment and wanted to study further to eventually work in Research and Development. Fortunately, Sasol granted me the opportunity to study my Masters in Chemical Engineering at the University of Cape Town (UCT). My research focused on the field of Heterogeneous catalysis specifically working with gold catalysts for olefin purification.
Looking back on it now, Sasol determined my path to a large extent. I have enjoyed the path I’ve been on, but it has been incredibly difficult to find employment in the field which I am so passionate about…those are the times when I wonder how things might’ve been different if I had had the resources to choose a career in IT instead.
4. Was there ever a time that you recall wanting to change paths & what convinced you to continue on your chosen path?
At the moment I am job hunting as I am no longer growing at my current place of employment- although the journey has been a good one. The renewable energy field is very white and male-dominated. I sometimes feel frustrated and powerless because these factors make getting a job difficult. I often feel forced to look at other industries. Yet continuing in this field also gives me the opportunity to be one of the female pioneers in this space.
5. Give us a brief description of a normal/extraordinary 24hours in your life. (You can choose one 😋)
I once managed, quality checked and compiled a 6000 page proposal. Seeing that done felt extraordinary (and also like I could just sleep for about a year-lol). I've also worked as a Project and Bid Manager for the well-renown South African REIPPP (Renewable Energy Independent Power Producers Programme).
6. Name the one thing which excites you about your field of work.
Climate Change and Sustainability are the hot potatoes we are dealing with in our era. Renewable energy is exciting because it addresses these issues as a solution.
Melissa says that in her opinion, in order to make greater efforts towards curbing Climate Change and improving Sustainability, our actions should become a way of living for all.
Everyone has a contribution to make no matter how small. We shouldn’t only consider people working in the field, but cultivate a general way of consciously living sustainably no matter who you are.
7. What has your experience been like being a women in STEM?
I think it’s a difficult space. I remember at UCT, all the lecturers on my floor were male, this seemed to give a distinct advantage to the male students. I find that men in our environment can have heated arguments and it is often merely brushed off as “just letting off testosterone”, whereas, if a female were to do the same it would be regarded as totally unacceptable. The irony is that men having heated arguments is an extremely emotional response. Perhaps instead of being so aggravated by it, we should be aware of our natural inclinations and then accept that we are all, in fact, emotional beings. We need healthier ways of dealing with our emotions instead of perceiving this as a human weakness.
As I’ve mentioned, I work with teams who are often based in various international locations. Working with male counterparts from certain countries for e.g. in the Middle East, has been interesting. It’s often during these interactions that it becomes quite obvious that men don’t treat you as equal and you have to stand your ground quite firmly.
The real thorn in my side at the moment at my current place of employment is the lack of paid maternity leave. The company has the prerogative to terminate your contract and as a mom returning to work, you would not necessarily have job security after your maternity leave period. (It’s insane!!)
8. Do you find that there are still barriers within the STEM field?
Yes, I have seen women in management roles, however, a lot of the decision makers or more senior executives are men. I have fortunately recently met two great female role models who are at the top of their companies and both who have been nominated for women in energy awards. I am hoping to get to know these women more and learn from them.
9. Did becoming a mom change how you experienced your field of work?
Well, I think I feel tired all the time-lol!
I have had to accept that I can’t do as much work as before, but this does not mean that my quality of work has changed in any way. I now have to be more realistic about what I can really get done in a day…We are after all ensuring that the human species doesn’t become extinct! I have also come to experience what guilt feels like –“mom guilt”.
One thing I discovered after 3 months of maternity leave was that I am a better mom when I am working - working rejuvenates me. But at times I can feel quite guilty, especially when I am working on a deadline and can’t really have genuine quality time with my son for almost 3 days in a row – it can hurt. I’ve had to learn that he (my son) is doing just fine (I have not damaged his future by working on a deadline for 3 days) and I’ve also had to learn to call on my support network, my husband plays an active role and my father-in-law is always helping us out.
I took a decision to move slower with my career path after the birth of my son, however, I recently realised that this may not have been the best decision as I am a driven person and this part of me was not being fed, leaving me feeling frustrated.
10. How do you think organisational spaces could be improved upon in order to better support women in STEM? I think the working world needs to adjust in general from a male-dominated space to a space where both males and females are considered. We need to accommodate the needs of a woman in the working environment. A mom returning to work after maternity leave may still be breastfeeding; how about compulsory breast pumping facilities at work? Parents need flexi-time etc. Mentorship is still needed in a big way. It should not just automatically be assumed that it is a woman’s role to leave work to attend to a sick child. I think a cultural shift is needed where a boss won’t be surprised that a male has a request that would typically be considered a “mom” request.
11. What do you hope to achieve within your career, whether in the short/long term? I hope to find a more senior role at a Renewable Energy company. I am also in the process of networking to try and get some mentors in the field who can help me to grow further in the industry. I hope I can be influential in the energy sector.
12. Would you encourage your little one(s) & other young girls to move into a career similar to your own & why? Yes and no. People are different, if they are geared for STEM then most certainly, if not, they should follow their passion.
13. What's your favourite mom&kiddie activity? My son is in love with books and so our favourite activity is me reading to him while he cuddles on my chest 😊
14. Please could you give fellow STEM moms some advice on how to navigate the challenges within our field. - Assess your needs and then put support structures in place (not everyone has this luxury). Sometimes we have notions that certain tasks are our responsibility as women, when in fact, it’s something we can share with our husbands for example. - Be realistic about what you can achieve in a day - You will face injustice - be prepared as to how you will respond, speak to other women, find mentorship - Look at what you can change or influence and do that- the rest is not up to you; so don’t waste time on it - Be the best you, be yourself- that’s enough!