Helping women 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. This is part one of a two-part series.

“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 2023. 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.”