Wilma den Hartigh
When Hema Vallabh set her sights on studying engineering, she had no idea that one day she would lead a campaign that encourages more young women to pursue careers in engineering.
Her determination to reduce the severe shortage of female engineers in South Africa, and to see more young women study engineering, has earned her a spot on the Mail & Guardian newspaper's 2011 list of 200 top young South Africans.
The title is only awarded to deserving young people who are willing to think creatively about what they can do to make a difference and bring about change in South Africa.
Vallabh is a chemical engineer at fuel and chemical giant Sasol and director of GirlEng, a sub-division of South African Women in Engineering (SAWomEng), a NPO which aims to develop, motivate and empower women in engineering.
Her two roles keep her very busy, but for Vallabh it is all about nurturing a love for engineering and dispelling common misconceptions that prevent women from entering this field.
"There is a misconception that to be an engineer, one needs to be a grease monkey, donned in a hard hat and overall all day and getting your hands dirty," she says.
But this is not the case. Engineers can work as consultants, in finance, research or development.
"Your job does not have to be limited to the stereotypical engineering prototype that most high school pupils have in mind," she says.
Vallabh's decision to study engineering was a coincidence.
She didn't want to follow any of the traditional career paths that most of her schoolmates were pursuing, but she also didn't have any alternatives.
In the process of deciding what to study, she happened to have a brief conversation with a relative who was studying engineering at the time. "It sounded fairly interesting," she recalls, and it was with this limited information that she made the decision.
And, for a young woman from Johannesburg's concrete jungle, Cape Town was just the change that she needed.
"The decision to go into the chemical discipline of engineering meant I could study at the University of Cape Town, which was very attractive to an 18-year-old from Johannesburg," she says.
Looking back, she knows that this was a very risky way to choose a career.
"I was just incredibly fortunate that I ended up absolutely loving my chosen field both during my studies and once I started working," she says.
But not everyone is so lucky. The lack of relevant information on careers, particularly those that are maths and science-related, are one of the reasons why so many girls gloss over careers such as engineering.
"This made me realise just how great the need is for programmes such as GirlEng," she says.
Pushing the boundaries
GirlEng's approach is centred on providing information about careers in engineering. In doing this, young girls don't have to make career decisions based on hearsay or choose from a list of careers perceived to be suitable for women.
"The physical strength of the individual is by no means proportional to how successful they can be as an engineer," she says.
She adds that on an intellectual, academic and technical level, women have continually shown that they can match, if not exceed, the capabilities of their male counterparts in the engineering workplace.
GirlEng facilitates workshops around the country to educate girls from grades 10 to 12 about the opportunities in engineering. University engineering students are recruited to act as mentors to high potential students.
Solutions for the skills shortage
SAWomEng, which was established in 2005, was first aimed at tertiary students studying engineering. However, it soon became clear that if the organisation was to make a real difference in addressing the skills shortage in engineering, it had to shift its focus to women only.
"We needed to go one step back and tap into the talent pool at grass roots level," explains Vallabh. "This meant that we needed to focus our attention on encouraging high potential maths and science high school students to pursue a career in engineering."
South Africa is experiencing a severe skills shortage in the engineering sector. Of the limited number of engineering professionals in the country, only a handful of these are female.
Countrywide initiatives are underway to address the various causes of the critical skills shortage.
The Engineering Council of South Africa has embarked on a research campaign to understand the challenges faced by tertiary institutions in achieving higher pass rates in engineering bachelor’s degrees.
Solutions are also needed for the poor results in subjects such as mathematics, physical science and English in South Africa's high schools. Since 1994, the school system has consistently produced too few matric pupils with adequate results in these subjects, which are required for admission to engineering programmes.
These programmes take a general approach to addressing the engineering skills shortage, but none are specially targeted at getting more women to enrol for engineering degrees.
This is why GirlEng has an important role to play, in South Africa and overseas.
Vallabh says that the shortage of female engineers is not limited to South Africa. In countries such as Germany there is also a major lack of women in the field.
She has already identified an opportunity to expand the reach of GirlEng to other countries and is looking to adapt the locally-developed GirlEng model to also bring about change in Europe's engineering sector.
The initiative's work is already paying off. Results from surveys show that a number of girls have gone on to enrol for studies in the engineering sector as a result of attending GirlEng events.
"There is still plenty of work to be done, but I think we're definitely moving in the right direction," Vallabh says.
Being recognised as a young South African making a difference is a great honour, but she believes that accolades alone cannot be a driving force to bring about change.
"The work I do with GirlEng has become such an integral part of my life. For me, it's my way of giving back and hopefully making a difference in the world," she says.