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What advice would you give your younger self? SMEC’s women in engineering reflect on their career journeys

Reflecting on Women’s Month in South Africa, SMEC South Africa celebrates their very own women in engineering - inspiring females who are not only transforming our built environment but leading the way for the next generation of female engineers.

These women and many more like them in South Africa and around the world can greatly influence those embarking on their careers, whether they pursue a career in engineering or not.  By sharing their personal experiences, their challenges and fears, they give hope and encouragement to young women who have great potential but just don’t know yet what lies ahead.

We sat down with three of SMEC’s highly experienced engineers – all women – who are passionate about their careers in what is a typically a male dominated field. 

Here’s what they had to say when we asked them:
What advice would you give your younger self?

Anzelle Marais, Professional Engineer

Anzelle is a professional engineer with experience in Geometrics and Construction Contracts Management. She is currently working on Construction Management and Contract Administration for major road projects.

When I was young and embarking on my career, I doubted myself and my ability to be a strong, successful female engineer. Looking back over the past decade, I realise that I’m capable of overcoming anything that I set my mind to.

When I was younger it was difficult at times to navigate school, family and friends but choosing a career in a male dominated field brought with it even more challenges. You are judged, you have to work hard, and you have to have a thick skin. But challenges can be overcome by consciously thinking about how you want to impact other people’s lives. With time, challenges will seem minor in comparison to the satisfaction that is felt when you can see your hard work come to life and improve a stranger’s life.

I want to be an inspiration to women and not only engineers. At the end of the day I am a woman first. I am a mother and a wife before an engineer and my whole self contributes to who I am on a job site.

What advice would I give to my younger self?

Take every stumbling block in life and use it as a stepping stone to a stronger, better you. Remember that you are only human, that no one is perfect and that everyone requires a little bit of help and support at times.

Julia Kearns, Section Manager, Structures

Julia Kearns is professional civil engineer with over twenty years’ experience in a broad range of major infrastructure projects in the UK, Hong Kong, Australia, Ireland, Lesotho, Zambia and South Africa. In addition to the role of Sector Manager, Structures, she is also Quality Coordinator at SMEC’s Cape Town office.

With 24 years’ experience as an engineer I’ve seen the industry evolve as more women have taken up the profession and challenged ‘the norm’.

My first site role with my previous employer was as Assistant Resident Engineer on the Tsing Ma and Kap Shui Mun bridges in Hong Kong. I was one of the few European female technical staff on the project. As an Assistant Resident Engineer, I was horrified to discover that the female Nepalese construction workers were paid less than their male peers. This may well have been the first time that I encountered blatant gender discrimination.

The gender balance has always been disproportionate, and while it still exists, the opportunities for women in the field have substantially grown and there is more opportunity for woman to advance.

In my opinion, unconscious bias is the biggest factor that continues to hinder gender equality in the workplace. For example, a manager may assume that women may not want a job that involves travel, but may not actually consult with them on this issue. The good news, however, is that if we are cognisant of our unconscious biases, and take account of these in our decisions, we can ‘unlearn’ them.

What advice would I give to my younger self?

Technical excellence is vital, but strong negotiation and communication skills are also important to career progression. Therefore, my biggest piece of advice to my graduate self would be to encourage myself to join an organisation like Toastmasters. Toastmasters enables their members to develop public speaking and leadership skills in a positive and supportive environment. I joined Toastmasters 18 months ago, and I can honestly say it has been a life-changing experience.

Radeshni Moodley, Professional Engineer
Radeshni has eight years’ experience as a professional engineer, with expertise in infrastructure planning and design.

As a fresh-faced graduate straight out of university, the prospect of finally completing my degree and starting my first job as an engineer was both exciting and terrifying. I’d studied hard, put in the hours and I thought finally the difficult part was over and it was smooth sailing from here. Little did I know what would lie ahead.

Fast forward nine years and I have built a career and grown in an industry that I love. I don’t regret choosing this career or the challenges that have come with it. I still have a very long way to go and I don’t believe you will ever reach a stage where you have all the answers. That’s what I love about being an engineer, you are constantly learning.

What advice would I give to my younger self?

In a male dominated industry such as ours, you are bound to find a few insecure and intimidated men. Show them that we are competent and that we deserve to be in this industry. You will also meet men who are supportive of your career and encourage your progress in this industry. Learn from these men and accept their constructive criticism and use it to help you grow.

Believe in yourself and don’t be afraid to take a chance or speak up. You are much more capable than what you give yourself credit for.