Quality mentorship empowers women in engineering

Quality mentorship empowers women in engineering

The International Women in Engineering Day was celebrated on Friday 23 June. In an opinion piece for News24, Drs Karen Garner and Chantelle van Staden, both from the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering,  wrote that quality mentorship helps females entering the engineering profession to advance in their careers.

  • Read the article below or click here for the piece as published.

Entering a new workplace, especially when fresh out of university, can be a daunting experience. Besides the focus on applying theoretical concepts and practices to real-world problems, the newly minted employee must find their place within the culture of the organisation.

Teams and departments have a long-established culture with certain values that generally speak to the vision of the organisation. Integrating into the culture is necessary to improve teamwork, collaboration, and productivity. It is also important for the employee’s sense of well-being and job satisfaction. This is why mentors have such a crucial role to play in guiding new employees.

Mentorship is important not only for technical learning, but also navigating the culture, dynamics, and politics of the team. A good mentor helps an employee build their professional network and navigate their position’s interpersonal intricacies. In the engineering profession, in particular, quality mentorship can help female employees to settle and advance in their careers.

As we celebrate International Women in Engineering Day on 23 June, we should not forget that historically, engineering workplaces consisted mainly of men, with the false perception that engineering was a field where men predominately succeed. Over the course of several decades, a culture rooted in this perception has emerged, acting as a barrier for women seeking entry into the engineering field. To break through these barriers, it is essential to have dedicated mentors who are passionate about cultivating a more inclusive work environment. As perceptions begin to shift, the engineering sector as a whole will experience positive transformation, benefiting everyone involved.

Mentorship plays a crucial role in the professional development of all engineers, but its significance is particularly pronounced for female engineers. The absence of effective mentorship has been identified as a key factor contributing to the departure of experienced female engineers from the field. Without a mentor to provide guidance and serve as an advocate, many find it challenging to navigate the intricacies of team culture and dynamics, particularly in male-dominated environments.

One female engineer told us that did she not have a mentor when she started her career as an engineer. “I learnt much of what I now know the hard way and had to learn to speak up for myself. It was hard, but I persevered, and I would like to think that I made it. As a senior engineer, I can look back and see where a mentor would have been able to guide me through some murky waters. I now actively mentor junior staff, especially younger women. It really is difficult making ourselves heard and it often feels like we must prove ourselves over and over.”

Another female engineer recounted how her mentor was not very interested in mentoring. “We had very few sessions and the sessions we had were very short and he was not interested in my development. Instead, I found myself an informal mentor who really helped me find my way in the team and how to add value. He helped me a lot with my non-technical skills and how to handle conflict, particularly when dealing with contractors.”

It should come as no surprise that women who do not have excellent mentors often experience a sense of being constrained and undervalued within their teams.

Furthermore, the lack of influential connections can impede their path to advancement, as a robust network becomes increasingly vital in senior engineering positions. Shifting the focus, it is crucial to recognize that the goal is not to mould female employees to conform to the existing culture. The pursuit of “sameness” hampers innovation and restricts the potential for growth. Instead, a mentor’s role is to guide the mentee, leveraging their unique strengths and assisting in overcoming weaknesses. By doing so, they help chart a course that aligns with the mentee’s individuality, fostering an environment where diverse perspectives can thrive and drive meaningful progress.

Quality mentorship remains key for females entering the engineering profession. As one employee remarked, “I entered the workforce as a newly graduated engineer, and I found a wonderful senior engineering mentor that really fuelled my success at the company. I felt that having a great male mentor from the beginning, that truly wanted me to succeed, helped break any gender-based barriers and allowed me the space to integrate and thrive in my work environment.”

Furthermore, it is imperative to encourage more women in the engineering field to take on mentorship roles. Women are driven by the desire to make a meaningful impact and add value. They are more likely to actively participate in initiatives aimed at increasing female representation within the discipline. Many events geared towards inspiring young girls and teenagers to consider engineering careers are organised by female engineers themselves. This places a considerable burden on senior female engineers, but their involvement is pivotal in fostering gender equality within the sector.

Additionally, it is crucial for teams and organisations to recognise that female engineers may allocate some of their time to these initiatives, and they should demonstrate sensitivity towards this commitment. The engineering sector still has a long way to go in achieving gender equality, and meaningful change will only come about with the right individuals championing the cause.

📸 –  by Desola Lanre-Ologun on Unsplash