Steel Magnolias: SAISC supports the empowerment of women in the steel sector

Helping women to realise their potential is central to the vision of the Southern African Institute of Steel Construction (SAISC), which wants to see women participating at every level of the steel and engineering sectors.

Studies have shown that a diverse workforce and leadership fosters innovation and growth. South African universities are training record numbers of women in engineering and other technical fields. In line with this, the SAISC is stepping up, supporting women engineers and other women in the steel sector with technical training and mentorship,” explains The Institute’s CEO Amanuel Gebremeskel.

In keeping with the theme of women’s empowerment and national women’s month, the SAISC hosted a Women in Steel event in Johannesburg on the 3rd August: prominent women in the steel industry addressed delegates, sharing their insights and experience.

To further celebrate national women’s month, the SAISC spoke to several key women in the steel value chain, with the objective of sharing their hard-won wisdom with other women who are – or wish to be – ‘women in steel’.

Steel resilience

Judy Charls, Managing Director of Durban-based Future Steel, says women possess a powerful blend of resilience, determination, and adaptability, but need to believe in themselves:

“Those struggling in the steel sector – which has typically been very male-dominated – should remember that success is not gender-based but is a product of strength of character and determination,” she points out.

Charls, who spoke very inspirationally at the Women in Steel event, knows better than most the amount of grit and determination required to defy the odds and achieve success in the demanding steel industry.

She began her career in 1985 as a receptionist in a steel roll-forming company, working her way up to administrator and sales clerk. She left after 10 years to work from home as a steel agent, founding Future Steel. In 2010, Charls purchased machinery and started a manufacturing division, producing roofing accessories and natural ventilation. Today, her company is extremely successful, with a staff of 20, and clients all over KwaZulu-Natal. Furthermore, Charls has accomplished all of this, despite being in a wheelchair for a large part of her adult life.

“I have been wheelchair bound for many years but have never let that stop me! I am truly passionate about steel and maintained excellent client service and relationships working remotely from home – long before the pandemic, which made it more the norm to do so,” she observes.

Charls says that several longstanding clients have even built wheel-chair ramps in their facilities especially for her, so that she can still make site visits when she wants to see them in person.

Steel people

Linda Ness, Director of NJV Consulting Engineers and Project Managers recognises the need to recruit young women into the steel and engineering sectors – but sees it as of more pressing urgency to attract “bright, young, enthusiastic people rather – than specifically women”. Ness feels that talk of barriers to women becoming engineers or working in the steel sector misses the point, and does not do young female entrants – or the sector as a whole – any favours.

“Having said this, there is no reason why women cannot be good engineers or do well in any sector of their choosing – including steel,” says Ness. “As a woman, if you encounter a barrier, then you are looking in the wrong direction.”

She therefore counsels young women entering the steel sector to forge their own path, resolutely pushing through any challenges. And, if there is gender discrimination or no gender equality at the company they are working for, “then they are working for the wrong company,” she says.

Ness warns that in its eagerness to increase the number of women in steel and engineering sectors, the industry risks artificially “propping” women up.

“It is a fine line between supporting women engineers and women in steel, and a woman not being good enough. These sectors are not for everybody, and there will always be a dropout rate. There are lots of men who cannot make it either – and nobody is talking about or supporting them,” she says.

Engineering is a tough profession and steel is a tough sector. Either you are robust, or you are not, says Ness. She advises young women who feel daunted to find another boss.

“Go and find somebody who inspires you. However, do not come up against the barrier and think it’s a gender issue – it’s not.”

Steel skills

Nicolette Skjoldhammer, Managing Director of Betterect and Chairperson of the SAISC takes a similar line to Ness on prospects for women: the future is bright, provided they have the skills and a ‘can-do’ approach:

“There is a huge demand in every industry – locally and globally – for skilled people, regardless of gender. The world is our oyster!” she comments.

All industries are tough, Skjoldhammer points out. Her advice to young people entering their chosen field is to learn to get things done.

“Take ownership of all that is within your control, get it sorted and the job completed. If you can master this skill, you will soar to great heights. Believe it or not, this sort of follow-through and application this is sorely lacking in many industries globally.”

Skjoldhammer says she was somewhat “flung into the deep end”, and appointed Managing Director at steel fabrication, installation, and corrosion protection company Betterect, in Krugersdorp, when her father took extended leave more than 12 years ago.

She acknowledges that she is fortunate to be running a steel fabrication business now, as women still face challenges, but that “a lot of those fights have been won and now is our time to shine!”

Skjoldhammer says that the SAISC has been encouraging young women to join the steel construction sector: “Over the next few years we will introduce young women engineers to SAISC member fabricators and erectors to work on site,” she adds.

“We are also encouraging a number of experienced women to join the SAISC Board, to deepen their management experience and exposure to the industry.”

Skjoldhammer was also among the guest speakers at the recent Women in Steel event, with a rousing presentation focused on the true meaning of empowerment – including, amongst others, empowering self-talk.

Steel learning

Karabo Ntoane, in her third year of a BSc in Civil Engineering, credits a high school teacher for setting her on a steel career path.

In Grade 8, Ntoane was inspired by the teacher who piqued in her curiosity about bridges:

“Since then, I always imagined myself studying one of the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines. However, it was only after my first year at university that my interest in engineering solidified – as I became more aware of the role of engineers in society and in everyday life – particularly that of civil engineers,” she explains, noting her interest in the water infrastructure, structural and environmental aspects thereof.

That she was destined for a career in a male-dominated field only really hit home in third year while working on group design projects.

“At that point, it was hard to step out and be bold as a woman, and to trust that the knowledge that I have acquired over the years was just as valuable as that of my male counterparts. However, I am so glad I have done so, and know I am on the right path to a successful and rewarding career in the civil engineering sector, in which I will be working with steel as a material of construction, and seeing just how much can be accomplished using steel.

Along the way, I am so grateful for the input and wisdom of our lecturers, and I also look forward to further mentorship from experienced role players in the steel value chain,” Ntoane concludes.