Dr Karen Garner journeys from broken telephones to breaking barriers

Dr Karen Garner

Stellenbosch University is shining a spotlight on the exceptional women of our institution as we celebrate Women’s Month. Dr Karen Garner, a senior lecturer in the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at the Faculty of Engineering, forms part of this series of profiles that highlights the remarkable achievements of female academics. In this article, she taps into the transformative power mentorship has played in her journey and how she is paying it forward now.

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Growing up in Mitchell’s Plain on the Cape Flats, Dr Karen Garner dreamt of becoming an engineer. And she wasn’t going to let anything stand in her way of making this dream a reality.

“I knew at the age of 13 already that I wanted to be an engineer. I happened to watch a Popular Mechanics episode on television, and it just sparked my interest,” says Garner who is a senior lecturer in the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Stellenbosch University (SU).

She adds: “My father worked for Telkom and always brought home old telephones. So, my two younger brothers and I loved to play with these broken telephones and see how they function.”

But before Garner could embark on her journey to become an engineer, she first had to convince her parents, especially her dad, to send her to a technical high school.

“Back then it was unheard of to go to a technical school. Firstly, it was regarded as a place for “dumb” people. And secondly, there were questions about why as a woman you wanted to be an engineer. But me being the stubborn person that I am, told my dad to give me a chance.”

Garner’s parents eventually allowed her to attend a technical school not far from where they lived. Here she met the first of many mentors that would play a key role in her personal and professional development.

“Even though the girls were in the minority at the school, the boys were very accepting and most of the teachers supportive. I still remember my English teacher, Mr Nightingale, who was always motivating and uplifting all of us. He would always ask me how I was coping.”

Through hard work, Garner achieved top marks in school and received a bursary from Eskom to study at SU. During the holidays, she worked at Eskom where she paired up with female engineer Leanne Perumal who became a mentor. “Looking back, it was motivating to see that there were women in the workplace who were breaking ground and making a success of it.”

After she graduated, Garner started working at Eskom and later moved to Sasol where she had a brilliant technical coach. But it wasn’t easy being the first female engineer in her department.

“When I started, I faced a bit of upheaval mainly from the guys at the plant. But our secretary, who was also a woman, encouraged me and told me that being in a male-dominated environment doesn’t mean you must act or dress like a man. You can still be a woman. You can still do your nails and your hair, and you can still just be who you are because your skills and your work will show your ability. How you look doesn’t show your ability.”

According to Garner, the mentor she had wasn’t very invested in her professional development. “I received more mentorship from my technical coach.

“I was also fortunate to have an informal mentor in senior engineer Joe Sikhonde who joined the company not long after me. He helped me so much not only as an engineer but also with my personal development and how to navigate and handle situations where, for example, a client or an engineering manager was being unreasonable or aggressive. He is now close to being my best friend; we still chat to this day.”

After her time at Sasol, Garner joined Chevron for a year. Here she met a female senior mechanical engineer who helped her deal with the politics at the company. They became good friends.  When her contract at Chevron expired, Garner decided to do a PhD at SU. And as luck would have it, the then head of the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, Maarten Kamper, asked her if she would be interested in a lecturer position while doing her doctorate. Garner jumped at the opportunity and eventually completed her doctorate under Kamper’s supervision.

Looking back, Garner is grateful for the role he played in her life. “He helped me out so much in my studies and in my career. He helped me grow so much in my technical capability and how to think as a researcher, which was just fantastic.”

Having benefitted from mentorship at crucial stages in her life, Garner now pays it forward by mentoring the next generation of engineers. “I know how difficult it was for me. But I was lucky to have people at just the right times in my life that could fulfil those various roles and help me develop to where I am now. I had all these people who motivated me and listened when went things got tough.

“Now I get to pay it forward because I would have loved to have had a person like me when I was an undergraduate student, when I was going through the motions, and when I was in the workplace.”

She believes mentorship is key for people when they have to navigate the political dynamics of a new workplace and adapt to the organisation’s vision and values. “It helps if there’s somebody who can help you navigate the system and also be a voice for you.”

When it comes to mentoring her students, Garner says it is all about helping them to enjoy engineering and build the bridge to where they want to be. She has also been mentoring junior staff informally on, among others, the dynamics of the department, how to apply for funding, and to have a healthy work-life balance.

Garner believes mentors are important because we can’t always recognise our own weaknesses and blind spots. She adds that mentors can point out the areas where we need to improve.

As someone who maintains a healthy work-life balance, Garner loves to exercise and spend quality time with her four-and-a-half-year-old son when she’s not lecturing or doing research. She is also an avid reader and is currently learning Spanish. During the pandemic, Garner even tried her hand at knitting.

📸 by Stefan Els (Corporate Communication and Marketing)

(Article by Corporate Communication & Marketing / Korporatiewe Kommunikasie & Bemarking [Alec Basson])