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More girls are starting to choose careers in STEM, and early wins have been made in getting more women into leadership positions, having a hugely positive effect on the situation for other women in their organizations. Despite this, the fabric that these incredible leaders have woven is still thin, and influencers can still negatively impact the struggle against overt discrimination, unconscious bias, and the endless micro-aggressions from family, friends and co-workers that women in STEM face.

My personal experience speaks volumes to that struggle, and the many comments on this blog over the years tell me that I have not been alone in this.

  • In high-school, I had to lie to my parents and apply to mechanical engineering in secret, to avoid them forcing me to do something medical.
  • Instead of congratulating me for getting a scholarship interview at a mining company, a teacher decided to expound on how difficult the working environment would be, and wouldn’t I rather do something like medicine or teaching?
  • Upon learning I had received a full scholarship to study mechanical engineering, a friend’s parent remarked, “But why? That’s so…manly!”

If I wasn’t hell-bent on becoming an engineer, and if my circumstances had not been so fortunate, the ‘social and proximal factors’ around me would have forced me into a career outside STEM, and I would never have known the joy of doing what I absolutely loved, what I was born to do!

It thus sickens me to read that the CEO of a South African civil engineering society SAICE, Manglin Pillay will not be asked to step down from his position, after commenting in a SAICE magazine column (also posted on his LinkedIn profile) that South Africa should stop investing in women engineers.

In the column, Pillay quoted from a study by Leeds Beckett’s School of Social Sciences and the University of Missouri that women in gender-equal societies choose care or people-orientated careers while men tend to choose careers that orient them to things and mechanics.

Pillay’s conclusion was that women prefer not to occupy high-profile executive posts because they would rather have “the flexibility to dedicate themselves to more important enterprises like family and raising children than to be at the beck and call of shareholders”.

Pillay goes on to explain that the sole reason for women leaving the field is to raise children (and not the overwhelming gender discrimination they face every day), and that the gender pay gap does not exist, and if it does, its only because women are so congenial in negotiating salaries – a trait that comes from the “maternal instinct”.

Gosh, I am baffled at the level of ignorance in these statements. Where to even begin?In my years as a volunteer at ASME – the leading global society of mechanical engineers – I could have never imagined any of its leaders making remarks such as this – not least of all because many of them were women themselves, which set an excellent example for the industry.

Pillay’s comments are outstandingly irresponsible for a thought-leader in his position, with the influence he has over the industry, and are a terrible reflection on the organization of SAICE. His comments directly work against progressive organizations like WomEng and SWE, who work to balance the negative influence that society holds for girls pursuing STEM careers.

Worse still, his statements normalize and justify similar beliefs held by men (and women) on the role of women in the workplace, perpetuating harmful societal beliefs at a time when women have barely begun to experience the smallest of wins in closing the gender pay gap and in starting conversations about unconscious bias. One example of unconscious bias: a man leaves to tend to a sick child, he’s applauded as a hero. A woman does the same and she’s sloppy.

In addition to being wildly inappropriate, his conclusions are also horrifically false, and telling of a deep-set belief that women don’t belong in senior leadership roles. 

As highlighted in Professor Alison Lewis (Dean of the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment at my Alma Mater – the University of Cape Town) in her open letter to SAICE, the research Pillay quoted, “does not, in my view, lead to the conclusion that there should be less investment in attracting women into STEM careers.”

The research clearly states, “that the career and education choices made by girls are a function of both social as well as proximal factors”.

Reading the examples I gave above, it doesn’t take much to understand what “social and proximal factors” influence a girl’s decision not to take science as a subject, despite them excelling at it.

“On the contrary”, Lewis goes on to say, “the only way to fight for gender equality is by inspiring girls about STEM careers, promoting access to STEM disciplines and changing work environments to actively support women’s contributions. The development of women role models in the engineering professions is another vital aspect. This is the only way we will be able to change the real choices that are available to girls. Even “gender neutral societies” are still very far from gender neutral!”

And that pretty much sums it up for me. SAICE – with their all-male leadership team of Presidents and Vice-Presidents – should look long and hard at who they are, because what I’ve learned in my years of serving the C-Suite, is that the attitudes of the CEO are pervasive throughout the organization, and directly influence its culture. In SAICE’s case, the effects of an article such as this could poison an industry.

For some research-backed literature on some structural issues women face in the workplace, check these posts out:

What is unconscious bias?

Mentorship and sponsorship for career adancement


The SAICE has since decided to sack Manglin Pillay, after calls from the engineering community and its members forced them to do the right thing.  A win for gender equality, although I still believe that having at least one woman on the SAICE Board would have had a major effect on its initial decision to keep Pillay in the position, thus avoiding the embarrassment and member outrage caused.  This is a fair lesson for the Boards of private and social sector companies and non-profits.

DISCLAIMER: I am in no way a spokesperson for ASME or for any other organization. All comments and views are strictly my own and do not reflect that of any organization I may be affiliated with.