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Women leaders in engineering

Women leaders in engineering: What is their secret?

The Faculty of Engineering at Stellenbosch University celebrates Women’s Month by spotlighting six women in academic leadership positions. Professors Annie Bekker, Sara Grobbelaar, Prathieka Naidoo, Natasha Sacks, Cara Schwarz and Celeste Viljoen share their perspectives.

Prof Annie Bekker, Professor in Mechanical Engineering
  • What is your personal best achievement?
    I hope this is yet to come!
  • Who would you like to meet and why?
    Besides firm favourites such as Ernest Shackleton and Bernard Moitessier, the story of Pam Bales recently struck me. An experienced solo mountaineer, she got caught in a storm on one of her regular hikes. She found sneaker (!) tracks in the snow and followed them to an unresponsive hypothermic hiker. After warming him up with her additional gear and coaxing him down the mountain, they reached the car park, where he drove off without explanation. He later wrote an anonymous letter to Bales’ mountain rescue group containing these extracts: “Conditions were horrible, and I said to leave me and get going, but she wouldn’t […]. The entire time she treated me with compassion, authority, confidence, and the impression that I mattered.”
  • What is your philosophy of life / What is your message for other women in the engineering community of South Africa?
    • This is your life. Do what you love. Invest in your education.
    • Believe in yourself. Try, try again, and never give up.
    • Be hungry to learn. Sharpen your skills.
    • Absorb all that is positive around you. Find mentors. Springboard others.
    • Accept responsibility.
    • Rebound from failure. Celebrate success. Be brave. Dream.
Prof Sara Grobbelaar, Professor in Industrial Engineering
  • What is your personal best achievement?
    My most significant achievement is building and leading a highly effective research programme on innovation for inclusive development that has produced over 55 journal articles over the last six years. Currently, 30 master’s and PhD students focus on improving access to health, education and food in the African context. Attracting top talent from Africa, we do our best work to solve some of our continent’s biggest challenges.
  • Who would you like to meet and why?
    Prof Thuli Madonsela. She had an enormous impact on our country’s trajectory. Her integrity as South Africa’s Public Protector and her continued work on social justice is inspiring. I admire her brave leadership, her always recognising her team’s contribution and her determination to uphold democracy and fight corruption by indifferent and self-interested leaders.
  • What is your philosophy of life?
    We have one chance to exist; time is precious, so create a positive, nurturing environment where you and your team can use your talents and do your best work. Have a positive outlook on life and surround yourself with positive people.
  • What is your message for other women in the engineering community of South Africa?
    As women in engineering, we have a vital part to play in developing our continent and its people, so have the courage of your convictions. Dream big and work hard!
Prof Prathieka Naidoo, Professor in Chemical Engineering
  • What is your personal best achievement?
    Student training and skills development stand out for me. I have supervised and co-supervised more than 50 postgraduate students, attracting especially female students. It’s been an absolute pleasure to watch their careers grow.
  • Who would you like to meet and why?
    Arianna Huffington is one of the many female leaders I admire. Redefining measures of success, her excellent advice for women in leadership helped me through the different phases of my career.
  • What is your philosophy of life?
    The following saying by Confucius, a Chinese philosopher, encapsulates my philosophy of life: “Be the type of person that no matter where you go or where you are, you always add value to the lives of those around you.”
  • What is your message for other women in the engineering community of South Africa?
    It isn’t easy to balance the many roles and responsibilities that females, in particular, shoulder in their families. Therefore, I encourage women to set up a good support structure at home and for their work. Building these support structures through collaborations and networks in their careers helps form the basis for good momentum and success, especially when they need to take breaks for family or personal reasons. Set your own measures. Often, there are many external demands and lots to juggle, which can become overwhelming. So, focus on what is essential.
Prof Natasha Sacks, Professor in Industrial Engineering
  • What is your personal best achievement?
    My most outstanding professional achievement thus far has been the incredible journey toward a professorship. I’m immensely grateful to the amazing students, staff, collaborators, friends, family and sustaining faith which have contributed to this achievement.
  • Who would you like to meet and why?
    No specific person comes to mind. I enjoy engaging with people from all walks of life.
  • What is your philosophy of life?
    I believe we were created to thrive and live a life that matters. We need to know what stirs our souls and pursue what matters most.
  • What is your message for other women in the engineering community of South Africa?
    Aim consciously at significance, integrity and excellence to live the life you may at times think beyond your reach. Dare to accept challenging roles and projects. Sometimes you may need to be brave and persevere even though you are afraid. Along the way, support and enable others to succeed.
Prof Cara Schwarz, Professor in Chemical Engineering
  • What is your personal best achievement?
    Over my career, there have been several highlights: Firstly, obtaining my bachelor’s degree in the late 1990s when there were few female engineers and contrary to the perception that engineering was not suited to females. Secondly, receiving a PhD followed by a Woman in Science award. Thirdly, becoming the first female professor in the Faculty of Engineering at Stellenbosch University. Finally, as of January 2021, being appointed associate editor at the Journal of Chemical and Engineering Data (JCED) in recognition of my international stature in the field of chemical engineering.
  • Who would you like to meet and why?
    I would love to meet Angela Merkel. Dr Merkel is a world leader that I admire. She led Germany efficiently in a male-dominated world for many years.
  • What is your philosophy of life?
    Quitting is not an option, but 98% is good enough. Success comes from perseverance and not quitting when the going gets tough. However, one has to realise when good is good enough: adding the last 2% can take 98% of your time, and the added output is usually not worth the input.
  • What is your message for other women in the engineering community of South Africa?
    There is room for women in Engineering. Our female perspective can contribute significantly to the engineering community. Remain true to yourself and be the best engineer you can be.
Prof Celeste Viljoen, Vice-Dean: Teaching and Learning and Professor in Civil Engineering
  • What is your personal best achievement?
    I like to contribute as part of a team, so “my” achievements have been extensively facilitated by students, colleagues, mentors, family and friends. Proud of the engineering education and research we deliver at Stellenbosch University, I am doing my bit towards building this legacy in service to society. As the first female vice-dean of our faculty, I am thankful for the opportunity to help unlock the potential of younger female staff.
  • Who would you like to meet and why?
    Like a bulb in a circuit board, I can only shine when others complete the circuit:
    • friends and colleagues with their authenticity and warmth;
    • those who quietly (or loudly) go about their business, doing what they are good at; and
    • the writers of brilliant books on how we can work efficiently together.
  • What is your philosophy of life?
    Say “yes” to growth opportunities. Don’t let fear of failure get in the way.
    Be trustworthy. Trust, a core value in my decision-making, is essential for teamwork and all meaningful relationships.
  • What is your message for other women in the engineering community of South Africa?
    You have chosen a career directly impacting the quality of human life. You will make a real difference. Gender inequalities are steadily reducing, and you have every opportunity to succeed. However, while women remain underrepresented in engineering, your perspectives are more valuable.

Photographs: Prof Annie Bekker, Prof Sara Grobbelaar, Prof Prathieka Naidoo, Prof Natasha Sacks, Prof Cara Schwarz and Prof Celeste Viljoen.