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My Experience as a Female Engineering Student

Posted By Marietjie Jansen van Rensburg, Wednesday, 28 February 2018

In 2018, it feels almost irrelevant to talk about sexism, as we now live in a world where discrimination based on anything is considered taboo, and you will, most definitely, get called out on social media for being racist, sexist, or basically any kind of discrimination or bias.

Today we are bombarded with social media feeds containing messages of support and motivation; messages telling us that we can be anything we want to be, and not to be defined by any type of social construct; messages encouraging us to be individuals, and to achieve greatness, no matter how. What a glorious time to be alive.

However, this global culture of understanding and support is still new, and there are industries where sexism, racism, and other forms of discrimination, still create a culture where individuals are not supported or motivated to be great or achieve greatness.

When I was asked to write an article for “SA Mechanical Engineer”, I was honoured but a bit surprised at the suggested topic of ‘my experience as a female engineering student’. Not offended, just surprised, especially since I am responsible for the most successful student initiative within the SAIMechE in the last decade. 

Subtle acts and role divisions 
But as I was sitting down to write this article, it suddenly dawned on me that today, in the modern South Africa, sexism is no longer a blatant disregard for the female gender, there is no longer an outright belief that men are better than woman, but rather a subtle way of thinking and doing, coded in our DNA because of the social environment in which we were raised.

Today, the female engineering student doesn’t experience sexism in obvious, outright ways, but rather through subtle acts and role divisions. For example, in a group project where taking down minutes is mandatory, you will often see female students being given the role, sometimes at the expense of doing more technical work.

That is why, when projects involve building, manufacturing, or assembly, you will see female engineering students doing the theoretical work. Often the technical or physical aspects of the project are allocated to male students first, with the female students then being given the option to choose from, or volunteer for, the remaining work.

The question that comes to mind is why? Why in a world where females are celebrated and supported do we have so little female representation in mechanical/mechatronic engineering at tertiary level and in industry? Limited research has been done regarding this topic, but the most popular notion is that there aren’t many female role models to motivate girls to pursue such technical studies, or to stay within the industry after graduation, and I tend to agree.

The low female representation within SAIMechE (less than 5% according to the latest demographic information) and the lack of celebrated female engineers within the leadership structures of our institution and the industry in general, is evidence of this problem.

Growing up, my mother, being an educator, understood and embodied the principle that reaffirmations during early childhood development build confidence and self-worth, and both my mother and father noticed and supported my technical aptitudes all through my childhood years.

Having grown up in this type of environment, I never experienced any type of doubt about whether I could excel in a technical, male-dominated industry. But not all girls are this lucky, in fact, some are actively discouraged against pursuing technical careers after graduation. The majority of female engineering graduates end up working in non-technical positions, or working in a totally different industry altogether.

Great heights
That said, ambitious female engineering students are achieving great heights. It is now not uncommon to see female engineering students at the top of their classes, in leadership roles, or even as part of technical endeavours such as robotics clubs and international design competitions.

This is evident in the strong female representation in the SAIMechE Student Chapter initiative across the country. These ambitious female engineering students are doing just as well and achieving just as much as their male counterparts.

I believe, that as SAIMechE, it is now our responsibility to identify, recognise, and promote already successful female mechanical and mechatronic engineers in industry, as well as ambitious female individuals (students and graduates) as strong female role models within the industry to girls in school and at tertiary level. In this way, girls will have the confidence to be more, do better, and achieve just as much as any male peer.

By Marietjie M Jansen van Rensburg
(BEng Mechatronics, Stellenbosch University)
SAIMechE Council Representative:
Student and Graduate Affairs

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