Mom Of The Month: March 2019

Yes, this month I have featured myself….ordinarily, I would cringe at the thought of even considering this. This month I turned 34 years old, my daughter turned 4, it was International Women’s day and here in SA, it was Human Right’s day – there was a lot to reflect on! Over the past year I have shared stories, articles and posts about amazing women in STEM. While I do not claim to be one of them, I believe that honouring your own journey is vital to moving forward and most of all to provide a different perspective to those looking in. This month’s theme is one of self-love.

Quick history lesson: Prior to World War II, the concept of Self-love may have been more associated with vanity, arrogance and egocentric behaviour. Yet in the 1960’s (the hippie era), the concept was promoted as “peace and love”, which created peace advocates and a generation with more empathy for human life. This led to more focus around equality and women’s rights. Self-love is best appreciated as a tool for realising our self-worth, caring and being responsible for one’s self. Entering a system which was meant to exclude our talents and our gender, has surely not been kind to many women in STEM. Knowing one’s self-worth is vital to pushing on past the inaccurate judgements being harboured by those in the field.

Being a mom, self-love may even seem indulgent…yet how can we be our best selves – role models to our little humans… if we are barely holding things together inside? When we take time appreciate our strengths, without diminishing that of those around us; we spend less time trying to prove ourselves. I am proud of my journey, of the sisterhood I have created here and while I may not change things drastically just yet; I’m okay with doing things at my own pace…I hope that reading today’s article will allow you to make peace with your own journey.

Principal, Mrs Zanele Chilli, top achievers from Empilweni Primary and Business Partner, Kamie Pillay

Painting, our favourite time together :)

Bio:

Name: Kamentha Pillay

Age: 34

Location: Durban

Job title: Director 

              Founder of The STEM Moms Club and STEM Moms Blog

               Business Partner at Partners for Possibility

Company: Humanised Innovation

Interview with The STEM Mom

1. What does your everyday work entail?

I currently wear many different hats in a day. I manage my time between the blog &online community, the new company Humanised Innovation, and the NPO I work with, as well as the kids and their schedules and running our household as a work-from-home mom.

The blog, the STEM Moms Club and Humanised Innovation have a lot of common interests as the work mainly ties in with my love for research and advocating for women in Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics (STEM).

My work with Partners for Possibility has allowed me to really hone in on the idea of co-creation and co-innovation. Both these principles are carried through in the work I do with Humanised Innovation, where I intend to bring transformational change in complex spaces which have yet to enjoy the full benefit of diversity and inclusivity.

It does seem like a lot, however in our family, everything is a shared effort between hubby and I (and occasionally when we can get the kids to pitch in too 😊). This is definitely what helps me to keep everything going smoothly. I am a big believer in putting energy into activities which we are all truly passionate about. I find that when I do this, life is busy but I know that precious time is being better allocated.

2. What career path led you to your current work?

I received a bursary from Sasol, to study Electrical Engineering at UKZN’s Howard College. After the completion of my degree, I moved to Secunda, Mpumalanga, where I started in the working-world.

After an 18month training period, I was appointed as a plant support engineer. I spent a total of 6years in the production environment, where I focused on: troubleshooting and optimization of equipment, problem solving to reduce downtime and emergency outages, project management and commissioning, and managing a team of engineers and technicians.

In 2015 during a company restructuring, I decided to trade in my flameproof pants and I moved into the area of Business Development where I worked as a Business Analyst. I also decided that it was time to extend myself a bit further and so I started an MBA whilst being pregnant with my daughter! The combination of a growing family, new work environment and studies was certainly not easy to juggle – prioritizing, planning and utilizing family support became essential.

With our eldest soon to start primary school and a lot of health issues arising with our kids over the years, hubby and I made a collective decision to move provinces at the end of 2017. I welcomed the free time to settle the kids into our new environment. It was also a time to really explore my other passions which I hadn’t had the time to give much thought to in the early years. I found myself wanting to understand how I could add more purpose to my everyday work, whilst still making use of my very valuable education and experience.

Fast forward a year later and I’ve been fortunate enough to find a happy mix of passion and purpose. But it’s certainly not the final outcome!

3. How did you decide to move into this career path?-was it a certain person or moment which initiated it all?

My dad worked as a mechanical foreman and assured me that engineering was where women were needed. I loved the sciences, so it seemed like a good fit. He would take me to his workplace to get a bit of exposure to the environment.

The defining moment for me was an uncomfortable discussion with my guidance counsellor. She had expressed concern as to whether I would be suited to a career in engineering, as a woman. I’m not certain if I simply interpreted her question as a doubt in my ability or if I had become tired of hearing so many people reminding me of how difficult engineering would be, but I took this as a personal challenge at the time.

I enjoyed learning about electricity during high school physics. Electrical engineering also happened to be (at the time) one of the engineering disciplines with the lowest representation of females in it and as someone who was ready to take a stand, I was eager to show what I was made of.

4. Was there ever a time that you recall wanting to change paths & what convinced you to continue on your chosen path?

So many times!

- at campus (people weren’t exaggerating about how difficult engineering was!)

- at work after being passed over for promotions

and even after leaving the corporate space, trying to break into new industries.

As a teenager I felt that I had a duty to my parents to complete what I’d started; I didn’t give myself the option of quitting.

As an adult it became about proving things to myself, as I didn’t have any female role models to turn to at the time.

Now I keep my kids in mind; I know that if I want to see a change in organizational spaces or in our communities, I need to be able to initiate those changes. It takes a lot of self-reflection to realize that we can’t always blame the system, sometimes it’s more beneficial to think about how to change the system.

5. Give us a brief description of a normal/extraordinary 24hours in your life. (You can choose one 😋)

Nowadays my extraordinary days involve either: a spontaneous trip to the beach OR a visit to a local school (within the PfP network) to contribute ideas and fresh thinking to solve issues like a lack of infrastructure in lower quintile schools.

6. Name the one thing which excites you about your field of work.

My current work is a mix of understanding biases, organizational culture and policies as well as how effective communication and human connection can create healthier & more productive teams. It’s a completely different type of science in comparison to working within petrochemical sector. I love that I can now tie the two together to help teams to become more productive and to bring attention to STEM field at the same time.

7. What has your experience been like being a women in STEM?

Being smaller in stature and the only female in my team; most colleagues didn’t take me seriously at first glance. It was unspoken, but understood that respect was earned only once you’d proved you could handle the pace and the expectations of the job. I loved my team. I was valued and treated like a sister. The patriarchal systems were visible during the earlier days of my career. There were very few women who had progressed into management; so there were very few women able or willing to mentor. This made it difficult to navigate a career path.

In my final year of corporate life, the first female VP within the production environment was appointed. In light of this it looked like progress was being made…but there were definitely still many other issues to be addressed.

8. Do you find that there are still barriers within the STEM field?

Definitely. Since moving to a different province and leaving the corporate space, I’ve realized that the barriers here are probably more pronounced than I initially realized. I attended an interview a few months ago where I was informed that I was the first female that had been interviewed for an executive role in this particular company…I still say this with disbelief!

9. Did becoming a mom change how you experienced your field of work?

I remember after announcing my pregnancy to my work colleagues. There were a few jokes about, “Oh I suppose you’ll be leaving work after this to be a stay home mom”. Becoming a mom felt like complete irony to me. I had been told I wouldn’t be able to have kids. My babies were my miracles. I was frustrated that I had a career which I wanted to make more progress in, but I couldn’t seem to find the right balance between standbys and wanting to be present for the growth of my kids. Moving into the Business Development space, made life a little more predictable and allowed me to make peace with taking my career at a slightly slower pace than I had initially envisioned. Now the kids are my driving force to initiating transformation.

10. How do you think organisational spaces could be improved upon in order to better support women in STEM?

Childcare facilities

Paid family leave

Mentorship networks

Creating more room for discussion in organizations with the employees, not just at an executive level

11. What do you hope to achieve within your career, whether in the short/long term?

In the short term: I am keen to dive back into the job market to advocate from within the field, to create more human-centric yet innovative industries. STEM industries need to understand the importance of creating more focus on humans within their organizations, as well as creating designs and products with all humans in mind.

In the long term: I want to be a catalyst in growing the STEM community in South Africa to be a more inclusive space.

12. Would you encourage your little one(s) & other young girls to move into a career similar to your own & why?

Yes, I do already, as well as any other field their passions may lead them too. With the fourth industrial revolution, there are those jobs which have yet to be created, those which require an aptitude for innovation and lastly those which require a social aspect. I believe that encouraging our kids into STEM fields is only the beginning. Thereafter we need to teach them how to humanize a field which has been historically driven by competition, greed and a need to be first to market.

13. What's your favourite mom &kiddie activity?

Painting. It’s the time when we are the most focused. We can often be found painting for an hour or two before we realize we need to eat or get to something else.

14. Please could you give fellow STEM moms some advice on how to navigate the challenges within our field.

• No one said you had to travel a straight path to be successful.

• Build a support network from early on, keep asking questions and challenge that which you don’t agree with.

• As a STEM mom you are a pretty rare being, honour your journey and help those who you can along the way…it gets pretty lonely out there.