While one cannot argue that, as a country, we cannot or should not be proud of the significant strides that women have made in the world of commerce, the fact remains that in certain sectors of the economy, such as the metals and engineering sector, women still lag far behind their male counterparts in terms of leadership roles, among other things. According to a study conducted by the Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA), a total number of 18 067 professional engineers were registered with the council in 2004.

By 2014, this number had escalated to 23 634. In terms of the gender split, in civil engineering, which constitutes the largest group in the engineering fraternity, there were 650 (or just over 3%) of women working in the profession in 2004. By 2014 the number had increased to 2110 or 9%.

 The ECSA study, which also looked at two other important groups in the engineering fraternity – engineering technologists and technicians – found that in 2004 there were 4 594 technologists and technicians and by 2014 the number had almost tripled to 13 460.

 In terms of the gender split, the number of women employed as technologists increased from 500 in 2004 to 2 900 or 21% in 2014.

 This is an encouraging indication of improvement. What is even more encouraging is the increase in the number of female students who enrolled for these professions at tertiary institutions within the same (2004 to 2014) period.

 According to the ECSA study, there was a 220% increase in women registered for the Pr Eng qualification, a 312% increase in women studying to be technologists and a 118% increase in those studying to be technicians.

 According to the manufacturing, engineering and related services SETA, just over 20% of all people employed in the metals and engineering sector in 2013 were women. Comparing that with overall employment in the sector means that there were about 80 000 women employed in the metals and engineering sector.

However, a large majority of the women employed in the sector held clerical support positions (36 000 or 45%), sales and service position (23 200 or 29%) and only 20 800 or 26% held technical and professional positions. 

Furthermore, women comprise 45% of the economically-active population in South Africa, but only comprise 21% of top management. In the private sector, only 19% of top management are females, compared to 37% in national Government and 28% in local government. 

From the figures above, it is evident that transformation is taking place at a snail’s pace. But why are females lagging so far behind when compared to their male counterparts? 

Many reasons can be cited, ranging from lack of mentors owing to the small number of female leaders, through to cultural perceptions about the roles of women. These explain why the engineering field is still so heavily dominated by men. 

Not choosing a career in the engineering sectors is also possibly caused by perceptions from a young age that engineering means dirt, spanners and engines. It is now up to us to change that perception and to instil confidence in our children that they can be whatever they wish to be. Parents should encourage and allow their children to spread their wings in whatever directions they want. 

This should be the case not only with girls who want to be engineers, but also with boys who want to be nurses. 

Transformation takes commitment, time and energy – there are no quick fixes. While we are proud of the fact that we have many employers in the metals and engineering industries that have embarked on a dedicated drive and made resources available for the important objective of increasing female participation in the sector, it is also crucially important for these companies and various other stakeholders within the sector to continue to support industry bodies that aim to encourage meaningful female participation not only in the metals and engineering sector, but in the economy as a whole. 

Elsa Venter is the Deputy CEO of the Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of Southern Africa.