By Neziwe Moleejane

Young engineers, having access to any mentorship, leadership or support will enable their careers to progress so much faster, and keep them motivated to succeed – especially for women.

In sharing my story, it is my hope that some of my own challenges can show young engineers that persistence pays off.

I started my career by graduating with a B-Tech degree in mechanical engineering from the Cape Peninsula University of Technology. I immediately joined a building services consulting company specialising in HVAC, wet services, fire protection, and energy management.

Five years into my career, I studied further to obtain a post graduate diploma in project management from the University of Stellenbosch. I then had an opportunity to take a ‘career break’, and spent 18 months travelling in Europe. Upon my return I joined another building services consulting firm specialising in basically the same fields as my prior employer.

Over my career to-date, I have gained 10 years of consulting engineering experience in the property and building industries, with further exposure in design of wet services and fire protection. My expertise is primarily in the design and management of HVAC systems in commercial, education, residential, airports, switching stations and retail projects, so I have been able to bank quite a couple of lessons so far.

When I decided to follow a path in engineering, the thought of inequality never even crossed my mind. I always understood that I just need to be sharp, be good at Maths and Science, pay good attention to detail, and have problem-solving skills. I ticked all the boxes and I was ready to be an engineer!

“In every kind of work you enter, you need to prove yourself for people to respect and notice you.”

In my first-year classes at university, the ratio of male to female students was actually insignificant. I did not see much diversity between female and male students – it was purely a group of young people like myself who were sharp, good at Maths and Science and had problem-solving skills. Something, even back then, stood out though – male students had strong personalities, were more vocal and were quick to raise their hands to ask or answer questions. This was not the case for the women students, who mostly had meek and timid personalities.

The different personalities stood out in lab work and projects too. Carrying out any tasks or roles were then gendered – males would be selected as the group leaders and be more involved in technical aspects of the tasks. Females would be organisers and do more of administrative tasks like typing and compiling reports. Then I did not see lecturers being bothered by the dynamics, or advocating for project teams to be balanced in sharing the roles and tasks.

During my final year, the ratio of males to female changed drastically. There were suddenly many more males than female students. Most female students had either dropped out, some changed their careers and others started families.

At that stage, I also served as a president of Women in Mechanical Engineering where my objective was to encourage and tell young girls that they can choose any career they want. We invited females in engineering from the Industry to advise, share their experiences and network with female students. We visited high schools with the aim to challenge and prove the stereotypes wrong. We also wanted teachers to see females studying engineering, and female learners to see other females in engineering.

My final year project consisted of four members in the team – all whom were female. We wanted to show others that as females, we can manufacture a product, write a report about it and present that finished product. We achieved excellent marks and were ready for the working world, well, so we thought.

Joining the work force brought in some immediate challenges. Although at university I had learned to be confident and unashamed, making myself heard to many people and working with various people, I was obviously lacking experience. Some people would be openly demeaning and they would ignore me. This was really to do with my knowledge or inexperience and led to my first lesson, which was that in every kind of work you enter, you need to prove yourself for people to respect and notice you. My strong desire to learn and a commanding desire to grow as person kept me going.

I forged on through my work force making ways for myself when there was seemingly none. I was unfortunate to never have a formal mentor, however, from as far back as my university days and throughout my career, I have had people I admire that I built relationships with. They were and are the people I would turn to for advice. I think having a formal mentor would have been great, and looking back, I have probably had to learn the ‘long’ way.

There are a number of things that, if I’d had a mentor to guide me, would not have taken me so long to figure out. These include the following:

  • I spent a lot of time doing drawing work, which actually derailed my career. Initially this was part of my training and the office was transitioning from using HVAC software to using Rivet MEP software. I was fascinated at how I could clearly present all building services in one model and how easy it was to pick up clashes, produce a BOQ, calculate energy use and cost, and so on. Without realising it, a year had passed and I had not been exposed that much to the technical side of my work. It was not easy to stop doing drawing work because there weren’t many people who were skilled in using Revit MEP.
  • It was not necessary to consult a senior engineer in every design decision I made. It took me some time to realise that for every problem there are many options and solutions and there will also be many opinions, sometimes too many. What I do now is I take time to consult with the client, understand and interpret the scope of work, then do my research. I would bounce ideas with fellow colleagues and make a decision, possess it and stand by my decision. I am no longer bothered by some engineers questioning my designs, I own my decision. In the early days of my career I would change my design many times trying to do things in a certain way, which was unnecessary.
  • Being an engineer is not about completing one project after the other, it is important to take time to seek personal development. Having taken 18 months to travel and broaden my world view, I picked up some attributes which were transferable to my work. I came back to South Africa a better person. I embraced diversity. It excites me to work with a diverse group. A diverse group comes with diverse ideas and better solutions at the end of the day.

I am now involved in mentoring learners and the interns at work. I like to help young people in need of career guidance and assist them in figuring out the best way of tackling their careers. Being able to share my knowledge and experiences is extremely satisfying to me and more senior engineers should have this approach in my view.

As I accumulated experience in the field, I realised the regular ‘demeaning attitudes’ I get are not personal attacks as we too easily assume. People (especially engineers) are generally just not comfortable with what is different to their own perspectives, be it age, skin colour, gender or methodologies.

To dispel another stereotype, there are in fact many men in many industries who are welcoming to female colleagues and eagerly wait on their contributions. From my own experience however, the most difficult challenges I have faced were related, in one way or another, to inequality. Still today I am often expected to do admin work, to organise functions, and sometimes even do interior design for the office.

I’m definitely not endorsing the fatc that if I had the time that I would not gladly do these tasks, but too often standing up for oneself if you have ‘real’ work to do results in awkward moments that are actually emotionally exhausting and unnecessary. If I could get anything out of my experiences to share with other companies or seniors – I would urge these people to eliminate these ‘awkward moments’, for all young engineers. Equality, in the real world today, goes much further than people perceiving which tasks are associated with being either male or female.

Fortunately for me, nothing has taken away my passion for the design of building services. It is extremely fulfilling for me to be involved in amazing buildings that I can point at when passing by and say, “I was part of that project.”

Whenever I work on commercial office space and occupants get a chance to interact with me, the most common thing they comment about is thermal comfort. Occupants want to have more control in the comfort of their space. They want HVAC systems that can respond quickly to their needs. They want air-conditioning unit controllers to be simple to understand, operate and maintain.

It is a good time for young mechanical engineers to get involved and be part of these new innovations. If someone has an interest in engineering, no form of existing dimensions of inequality (no matter the type) should prevent them from following their career path to success.

About the author

For over 10 years, Neziwe Moleejane has worked as an HVAC design engineer on various projects including shopping centres, offices, residential buildings, education facilities and utilities. With her work she has always loved the opportunity to be creative, to make decisions and to lead. Her path has not always been easy, but brings so much fulfillment for her to pass by a building knowing she was the HVAC design engineer on it.