Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

The government, through its various departments and state-owned entities (SOEs), has not only practised what it preached by ensuring that women, similar to their male counterparts, occupy leadership positions as cabinet ministers, SOE board members and senior managers, but it has also introduced legislation aimed at ensuring that the private sector follows suit.

Within the broader manufacturing sector (of which the metals and engineering cluster forms part), the age-old idea of women artisans as mere seamstresses in factories has changed, with women occupying positions that were not traditionally ascribed to females due to subliminal prejudice and exclusion.

In addition, owing to the benefits attached to complying with legislation, some companies in the metals and engineering sector are starting grudgingly to consider women for the apprenticeship path.

The diverse and complex manufacturing, steel and engineering environment is, indeed, changing if the 2019 Commission for Employment Equity (CEE) report is anything to go by. The report states that women are making inroads in this predominantly male-dominated industry. While one may celebrate the fact that women are entering the industry, the reality is that they occupy mainly administrative and professional roles.

Though some progress in as far as transformation has been made, according to the CEE report, the pace at which this is happening is painstakingly slow. This raises the question: why aren’t we making significant progress with regards to female artisans?

Over the last three years, only a meagre 19% of all artisans trained were women. Female artisans had a 52% pass rate during the 2016/2017 year. This increased to about 70% in the 2018/2019 financial year, clearly reflecting that female artisans commit to their studies and success.

Research also indicates that women favour trades such as welding, being a fitter, and fitter and turner, with the electrical trade dominating and accounting for 20% of all female apprenticeship registrations. While this is worth celebrating, we have little to no registrations in scarce skills such as lift mechanic. It also appears as though females tend to shy away from automotive trades, hence the lack of females in these trades.

Why is there such a disproportion? One might wonder. There are myriad reasons, including lack of career guidance in trades; lack of support from work environment and learning institutions; age-old preconceived chauvinistic notions of prejudice in line with differences in strength; preconceived beliefs that women will not do well in certain positions; sexual harassment as a form of discrimination where the need for assistance should be accompanied by sexual favours; as well as corporate cultures that stifle women's progress in the workplace.

Statistics also indicate that meaningful gender transformation specifically in the apprenticeship sphere has hardly made a dent, with only one female shipbuilder being trained by a company registered with the merSETA in the last three years. As the industry, we should hang our heads in shame.

The apprenticeship route still has the potential to address the gender diversity challenges in the private sector. It also has the potential to allow companies to become active and deliberate partners of change within their own organisations.

The way forward is for employers to recruit correctly. Employers need to be open-minded and diligent in the recruitment of female apprentices. They should also conduct proper psychometric assessments to ensure that they recruit an artisan, and not only a female who is looking for a job, but a person who will meet the inherent requirements of the job and will be able to stay motivated and be retained within the business to get the full learning and development experience.

This will, in turn, close the country’s skills gap, with an apprentice growing into a master artisan and allowing for business and career growth as this can ultimately lead to a fully-fledged engineer having learnt and worked through different learning paths and career routes.

If employers embrace female artisans, SA can, within the next five years, start to see the rise of  female master artisans who are highly skilled and adaptable to the changing environment performing duties that were previously reserved for “strong, capable males”.

The landscape is changing and the day will come when one will witness SA’s infrastructure being designed and built by woman artisans who would have been given a fair chance to make their valued contribution, but this can only be achieved if captains of our industry remain committed to the transformation agenda  in general and gender diversity in particular.

• Norris is human capital and skills development executive at the Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of Southern Africa.

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