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UJ’s influential women engineers reflect on their profession

The United Nations (UN) General Assembly declared 11 February as a day to celebrate the achievements of women and highlight the need for equal access to and participation in science. Gender equality is one of the development goals for the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

At the University of Johannesburg (UJ) women are making leaps to make this a reality.

Dr Nita Sukdeo

Dr Nita Sukdeo, the Head of Department (HoD) for Quality and Operations Management within UJ’s Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment, was the second woman in the country to qualify with a Master’s in Quality and Operations Management.

“The field had a lack of females. When I got the job at UJ, I ran the BTech programme. I did my PhD and was the first female to do so in the Department, then I became the first female senior lecturer in the Department. All this was breaking barriers.”

Dr Sukdeo continued to progress over the years and became the first female HoD in her Department and now the only Associate Professor in the Department. Dr Sukdeo, who has received recognition both nationally and internationally, is hoping more women will follow suit as there is underrepresentation in the field of Operations Management.

Through her work as the Chairperson of Women in Engineering and the Built Environment (WiEBE), Dr Sukdeo is promoting and empowering women to get into the engineering field.

Dr Tebogo Mashifana

For Dr Tebogo Mashifana, HoD of the Department of Chemical Engineering, the lack of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields is evident in all levels.

“From early on, a girl child is made to believe that she cannot do subjects such as mathematics and science because these are challenging subjects. Studies have shown that there are only 35% of female students in STEM subjects, with the percentage of female graduates in core STEM subjects remaining below 30%. So often women in STEM are subjected to an unpleasant environment where they do not have a choice but to choose between their careers and option B. An environment where women must choose between starting a family or developing their career, yet these two can co-exist.”

Dr Mashifana, who is also the Chief Executive of Strategic African Women in Leadership (SAWIL), explained that to fix the lack of women in STEM, actionable plans to address challenges and barriers needed to be developed.

“Programmes can be implemented in primary and high schools to encourage girls to take STEM-related subjects. At a tertiary level, we need to be intentional about supporting women and mentoring them, so that they do not drop out and leave the STEM careers. The small group that is fortunate to enter the workplace, remain there, and climb the ladder should take it upon themselves to change the environment for women in STEM. It will not happen overnight, but if every woman decides to hold another woman’s hand, mentor other women, be a role model and be available when they are on the verge of quitting and giving up, we will slowly change the statistics of women in STEM. Support, sponsor, be her mouthpiece, fight for her. We must be intentional about lifting others as we rise.”

Professor Yanxia Sun

The Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering Science’s Professor Yanxia Sun is passionate about how engineering knowledge can be applied to both industry and life directly.

“The sense of achievement is great, especially when there is progress from my students and myself.”

While all the educators agree that work and life balance can be difficult, they believe their work is rewarding.

Prof Sun agrees that there needs to be a more friendly environment to encourage girls to grow in the engineering space.

“This field is quite interesting, and it requires young students, including girls, to endeavour to do their best.”

International Day of Women and Girls in Science has been observed every year since 2015.

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