Finding work-life balance in a male-dominated industry: two young women speak up

There’s no denying the advances that have been made in working towards gender equity in the workplace. Over the course of several decades, significant gains in equal representation and pay parity have been secured, much of which is now mandated and closely monitored by regulators. Decades of awareness-raising, campaigning and advocacy are at last bearing fruit.

And yet, despite these shifts, deficiencies and gaps remain, particularly in industries that have historically been heavily dominated by men. In sectors like aeronautics, finance, software development and construction, the tide has been slow to turn. Fortunately, there are exceptions – instances where the progress felt elsewhere is evident.

At Leoka Engineering, a pioneering engineering, project development and management services company based in Johannesburg, 54% of the team of engineers, quantity surveyors and other specialists are women. In management, half of the four-person team are women, too. “Employing and developing women in this sector is a priority for us,” says Leoka’s Manager of Corporate Affairs, Motlatsi Makgata, “and that means being sensitive to the unique needs of our female employees.”

‘A challenge that many women face’

Polokwane-born Nthabiseng Madubanya graduated with her Bachelor of Engineering degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Pretoria in 2018. In September 2020, she started working at Leoka Engineering. “There are more female engineers now than there once were,” Madubanya says, “but the industry is not where it should be.”

Madubanya is currently working on several projects, including those related to road rehabilitation and traffic modelling, and counts among her clients such high-profile entities as Palabora Mining Company, Anglo American Platinum and Arnot Coal Mine. The experience she has gained over the past year has been broad and fascinating.

There have, however, been challenges, the greatest of which is having to live far away from her children: twins, a boy and a girl. “Making time for work and making time for family is difficult. It’s a challenge that many women face,” she adds. “I’m grateful that I have the support of my family and of my colleagues at Leoka, who understand what I’m going through.” She is particularly grateful to have women in leadership positions to whom she can look up. “These women guide me,” she explains.

‘I have to balance my time’

Refilwe Kgwebane, who graduated from Wits and now works in quantity surveying and procurement, has been part of the Leoka team since December 2019. It wasn’t until Grade 11 that she learnt she could combine her interests in law and accounting into the discipline she now calls a profession. “I like that quantity surveying has all the elements of law I love and as much accounting as I can handle,” she laughs. “And I love that it gives me access to the engineering world so that I can see what happens on-site.”

Kgwebane is currently working on a major project for Exxaro and is responsible for the design, implementation and management of the project’s various contracts. She’s been involved since the process was just a proposal. “I’ve enjoyed working closely with the engineers and learning from them, and love that so many of them are women. It’s inspiring working with women of that calibre.”

Working in a male-dominated industry hasn’t always been easy. At a previous firm, a male colleague once explained to Kgwebane what a ladder is. Becoming a mother presented new challenges. “Once a woman becomes a mother, society thinks she’s no longer fit for the workplace,” Kgwebane says. “Yes, we have more responsibility, but that doesn’t mean we want our careers to stall. At first, I worked long hours to prove that I was still committed to my job, but I’ve since learnt that I have to balance my time.”

At Leoka, this balance is encouraged. “Time is one of our values,” says Makgata. “We are just as likely to ask about your family life in a work interview as we are about your qualifications. We know that our people are humans with families and lives, and that they will be happier if they work in an environment that has proper support structures in place.”

In its recognition of the demands placed on women, and their unique professional experiences, Leoka is redefining what it means to be a female civil engineer or quantity surveyor. This awareness may be at the heart of long-term change in the sector.

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