Royal HaskoningDHV CEO Anke Mastenbroek says women engineers don’t need to toughen up or downplay their gender.
“When we talk about bias and discrimination in the engineering industry, the conversation often shifts to gender inequality, and for a good reason. Although progress has been made in overcoming the challenges that women experience, discrimination and bias continue to plague the industry,” says Anke Mastenbroek, CEO of Royal HaskoningDHV.
She says women still feel like they cannot be themselves, that they are not taken seriously, they don’t fit in, and they have to work extra hard to prove themselves.
The pay gap, Anke notes, is still an issue, as is on-site safety. “But if we really want to break the bias and start seeing real progress, we also need to start breaking the misperceptions that plague the industry and deter women from considering a career in this dynamic field,” she says.
The first misconception, she says, is that you have to love maths and science to become an engineer. “Yes, maths, science, and technical ability are important foundational skills. But with technology taking on more of the grunt work, analysis, and calculations, they’re becoming less so. We need more of the skills that technology can’t replicate, like creativity, empathy, communication, collaboration, critical thinking, imagination, problem-solving and leadership,” Anke notes.
She says engineering is not so much about being good at maths as it is about being interested in how things work and how they affect each other. “If you were the kind of kid who took apart and put back together the toaster, made a potato gun, or tried to light a leaf on fire with a magnifying glass, you might enjoy a career in engineering.”
“Do girls know that with a solid foundation in engineering, the possibilities are limitless? You could specialise in one field, like chemical engineering, or be a generalist who understands multiple disciplines and how they link together. You could branch into business development, start your own consulting company, or teach others,” Anke says.
She shares that engineering is a “portable” career and that by studying civil engineering, one can specialise in bridges and roads and later switch to water systems or data centres. “You can choose a path that offers travel across the world or one that lets you stay in one place and raise a family. You can work anywhere you want, on whatever problem you choose. It’s a purpose-driven career, and your passion can literally take you anywhere.”
She highlights that engineers are in demand across the globe, and even more so in South Africa. “Just this month, aeronautical engineers, civil engineers, industrial engineers, mechanical engineers and systems engineers were added to South Africa’s critical skills list. We must stop putting girls off just because they might not enjoy geometry and challenge outdated perceptions of engineering by showcasing the range of careers available.”
Another misperception Anke points to is that engineers wear hard hats, overalls, and are up to their elbows in dirt
“The reality is if being oily, smelly, and dirty appeals to you, then yes, some engineers do look like this, and they love it. But some of the smartest engineers have long, manicured nails, wear heels to work, and are part-time models.”
Anke says women should not have to toughen up, downplay their gender identity, or be “one of the boys” to succeed in engineering.
“Many girls don't want to be engineers because they think the job is boring, not creative, and based in a factory. This is because people don't know enough about the breadth, depth, range and quality of engineering careers.”
According to Anke, companies that are not committed to advancing diversity, equity and inclusion and that do not have solid anti-discrimination and harassment policies and procedures in place will not be welcoming to women.
“At the end of the day, these businesses are losing out because women will leave, and they will take the very skills, imaginative perspective and structural and cultural differences that drive effective solutions, give the business a competitive advantage, and contribute to higher revenue and productivity with them.
“They’ll move to firms that value and recognise women’s contributions, invest in their training and professional development, and support them in reaching their potential. They’ll choose a culture where women feel comfortable speaking up and sharing their ideas without fear of judgement or discrimination. They’ll find a home that values flexibility, balance and the power of collaboration.”