1. What does your typical workday entail?
My typical day starts with the morning school run - which is sad these days; because after the next 2 months the twins will be finishing school and the school run will become a thing of the past. These drives are generally filled with a tremendous amount of one-sided conversation (I think I have bored my kids silly with all my theories and solutions to everyday problems during our school run. But I’m also secretly aware that I have equipped them to face any problems, and created a basis for analytical thinking skills through these discussions…I guess we’ll have to see if my predictions are correct🙂).
On arriving at the office, I am tempted to go through my emails and field as appropriate; however, as a business owner, I tend to be copied in on everything possible! - I am still trying to manage this effectively (If any of you have tips in this respect, I’d gladly welcome your tried and tested advice).
My typical day will cover everything from admin related matters, financial and because I have opted to still manage a few of the projects myself, my technical skills are also utilised. I am very interested in completing the Fellowship Course in Arbitration, having done the Certificate Course, so a lot of the contractual matters within the organisation are also referred to me. I spend some hours in my day trying to mentor staff on all elements of the business. Meetings, both within the organisation as well as external also consume a lot of my time. I can safely say that I’ve not experienced a single “Groundhog Day” in my working career to date. Every day is unique, which is the primary reason as to why I am still a practicing Civil Engineer. I tend to also carry work into my evenings, but certainly in a more relaxed environment. Occasional cooking is more of an “art in progress”, than a chore and because hubby and the kids have limited exposure to this, there is always a lot to be said around the dinner table. Fortunately all other duties are taken care of and hence at home I can relax and destress as one would expect to do.
2. What career path led you to your current work?
I qualified with a BSc Civil Engineering Degree from the University of Durban-Westville and a Graduate Diploma in Engineering (GDE) (Environmental Eng.) from the University of the Witwatersrand. I obtained my professional registration and took a year’s leave of absence from my SA Employer, to pursue working in the UK. It was during this time that I developed my business plan and on my return to SA, handed in my resignation and started MPA; 22 years ago!
3. How did you decide to move into this career path?-was it a certain person or moment which initiated it all?
It was most definitely a person that initiated a move into this career. I had registered for a Chemical Engineering Degree and was about to withdraw from the program. I met with the HOD of Civil engineering who suggested that I should maybe consider switching to Civil. This was a decision that I have never regretted and am ever so grateful that Professor Brian Dougherty had intervened at that moment. His advice shaped my journey into what has evolved into my passion; rather than that which is perceived as work in the profession.
4. Was there ever a time that you recall wanting to change paths & what convinced you to continue on your chosen path?
Since pursuing career in Civil, I have had no regrets, in fact I had found my niche area and did make the Dean’s list all the way until graduation. I was also very fortunate to have secured a bursary in my last 2 years of study. My work experience in 1995 in the UK certainly provided me with a glimpse of why I had to return. The experience I was getting in SA was far superior to my male counterparts in the UK at the time. Their opportunities were limited to rehab and maintenance as opposed to executing new work.
5. Give us a brief description of a normal/extraordinary 24hours in your life. (You can choose one 😋)
I’ve had many extraordinary moments throughout my career and they are all focused on the concept of giving back - whether it is (a) handing over a project to a local community that has never had the privilege of having on-tap drinking water in their home or a flushing toilet, (b) mentoring young professionals and learners in the civil engineering profession or (c) providing entrepreneurial guidance for start-ups and watching them succeed.
6. Name the one thing which excites you about your field of work.
The fact that I have it in my power to shape how people live, work and play.
7. What has your experience been like being a women in STEM?
On the work front, I am recognised as an equal - whether this is because I am the business owner and what influence this has on being accepted; I cannot confirm. I have however, worked hard at achieving this and have used all of my inherent qualities and advantages in getting to where I am today. It’s taken: common sense, a total awareness and ability to read individuals, trust in a gut feel when making decisions, and hiring for the most obscure advantages (which has always proven to be correct decision). On the social front, I must admit I have let my humility creep in, as I suppose it is the norm with most females in unusual occupations. The intention is not to make other females feel inferior in any way. It is certainly work-in-progress from my side in terms of using my status and success as a means to enlighten other females and elevate their position, as well as to ensure that they are equipped to influence their daughters to pursue careers in STEM. I have the ability to empathise with fellow co-workers, as well as identify when the system is being abused.
8. Do you find that there are still barriers within the STEM field?
I am constantly alerted to the fact that this is the case, when I do interact with a number of females in STEM. I have also questioned myself in this regard. I wonder if I’ve become so accommodating over the years, that I’ve also hardened in the process - which is perhaps why I cannot recognise or align myself to any of these challenges.
It certainly does appear that women are faced with more challenges in this fast-paced world that we find ourselves in. The balancing act, instead of getting simpler is certainly getting increasingly more difficult.
I believe it is sometimes difficult to address some of the issues that are still being faced by females because we aren’t doing enough to talk about them openly. It is also ineffective to address these matters amongst females only; as we wouldn’t be effective in changing the status quo. It is therefore critical that we focus on diversity matters, as opposed to ‘female’ issues more seriously, to ensure that we have a captive audience in order to influence change. I also believe that there needs to be a very direct enabling environment to support both growth and retention of females in the sector, which can be achieved by a very deliberate change in policy, that encourages employers’ to derive tax benefits.
9. Did becoming a mom change how you experienced your field of work?
I must admit that my support structure assisted in ensuring that my kids were well taken care of. This provided me with the flexibility to pursue my dreams without any of the ‘mom-guilt’. I also, through their growing up years, focused on quality rather than quantity. My holiday planning occurred every 2nd Jan so that my family time was taken care of and there was something for us all to look forward to. I also selfishly insisted that my limited time with my family be restricted to my immediate family only.
I separated my work-life from my family-time and created definitive boundaries, which was my coping mechanism; even to the extent that my hubby and children got accustomed to not asking me how my work day was, in my home space!
I must admit that being a business owner, does have its challenges; especially at this current time. If I were to change anything over the last 22 years; I probably should have taken intermittent periods of extended leave to “just be a mom”.
10. How do you think organisational spaces could be improved upon in order to better support women in STEM?
I think that there are certain careers within STEM that favour more flexible or time-based working condition. Employers’ should recognise the outputs associated with these arrangements and promote as far as is reasonable. I do however believe that within the field of Engineering, experiences are what matters in terms of decision making and fast-tracking of the process. The association with mentors and supervisors that are used as sounding boards is critical, especially during those stages prior to obtaining professional registration; hence the opportunities for remote working is limited. However, with advancement in technology and connectivity being so easy; one does have the ability to execute and obtain knowledge transfer in the process. Creating “convenience opportunities” by employers that are tax deductible will certainly benefit parents, and not necessarily just females.
11. What do you hope to achieve within your career, whether in the short/long term?
Short term: A sustainable business. I am finding it increasingly difficult to practice in SA. Although South Africa professes to be supportive of entrepreneurs; it is actually contradictory. Our policies are in no way enabling and in fact very restrictive and increasingly expensive in terms of doing business and (more importantly) staying in business. I’d also like to give more focus to gender diversity, in the interest of raising awareness around the challenges faced by females in STEM.
Long Term: I would like to be taken seriously on all fronts. Even with my wealth of experience and having started from a zero base, in a very male dominated area and having succeeded; government is not prepared to listen to what needs to be done to revive our economy in our sector. The single focus area should be in ensuring that our youth that are in STEM careers are competitive on an international basis and are also encouraged and supported to solve some of our problems in a sustainable manner. I believe that a long term program driven approach can be effective in addressing poverty alleviation and unemployment, particularly in the Engineering Sector.
12. Would you encourage your little one(s) & other young girls to move into a career similar to your own & why?
Most certainly! I do spend a great deal of time doing exactly that, with both male and females. I endeavour to share my story with young males. I would want to make sure that they are not misled into believing that it engineering is an exclusive career for men. I believe this will ultimately result in the change that we would like to see in the sector, and hopefully a change I will witness in my lifetime.