It Is A (Wo)man’s World
The mining and engineering sector often appears to be an “old boys’ club”, but thanks to a growing focus on gender parity, as exemplified by Invincible Valves, an increasing number of women are succeeding here too.
Several decades ago, singer James Brown opined that it was “a man’s world”, but it is clear that this is a severely outdated opinion. After all, we live in a world where the #MeToo movement has risen to prominence, where countries as diverse as Germany and New Zealand have female leaders and where the clamour for equal representation has grown deafening.
According to Pam du Plessis, managing director at Invincible Valves, the mining and engineering space may still be a bit behind some other sectors in its levels of representation, but she does feel that women are becoming increasingly attracted to this arena.
“Progress has been phenomenal compared to a few decades ago, when any form of apprenticeship in this industry wasn’t even open to women. Of course, there are still many who have the perception that women are not necessarily strong enough to handle working in this business,” she says.
“Of course, I believe strongly that no woman should find herself stopped at the door before having a chance to show what she can do. Therefore I am committed to making whatever impact I can on gender equality in this industry, through the implementation of learnerships for women.”
She adds that her target market is those girls who are not at university, but are still seeking a qualification. This is because for the cost of sponsoring one student to obtain a degree, she can instead sponsor 20 youngsters to undertake their fitting and turning qualifications.
“By doing this, it should have 20 times the impact. It will not only impact on the families of these students, but like ripples in a pond, it will ultimately be felt by an increasing number of people within the overall community.
“For me it is vital to focus on helping as many youngsters as possible to escape the poverty and unemployment trap. This should be the responsibility of all business people and of the nation as a whole. For me it is about teaching people a skill they can use to obtain a job or to start their own business, and to this end, Invincible strongly supports local businesses. Thus if there is any sub-contracting to be done, we always look to use people within the community, even if they are not always the most cost-effective option.”
Du Plessis points out that as a woman in this industry, she has always found that instead of trying to demonstrate how smart you are, it is better to instead simply keep quiet, listen and learn.
“Many of the older men in the sector feel that a woman won’t really know anything about the industry, and I like to let them believe that what they are saying is going over my head, as it gives me a strong advantage.
“Moreover, I love it when I have the opportunity to overturn a particular perception someone has. Sometimes the look on the men’s faces when I arrive onsite in a bakkie and overalls, and am ready to get as dirty as is necessary to get the job done, is absolutely priceless.”
She indicates that it is this “old guard” in the sector that mostly still struggle with the concept of women working in this space, and suggests that while it will take a few years, letting the evolution happen naturally is the best approach. After all, she adds, most of the members of this “Aged Industry” will have retired in the next decade.
“As the younger generation enters the sector, I believe we will see the gender parity gap closing, as this new generation is more open to change and also understands the value that diversity adds to their ranks. In fact, it is my opinion that within the next decade we will witness female participation in this industry grow to around 40%, if not more.”
Differences Are Key
Women certainly do bring new approaches to things, she continues. “Not only is their management of skills different, but women have strong emotional intelligence and are good at applying logic to difficult situations.
“Men and women also often view problems differently, so what may be a problem for a man is not necessarily viewed as one by a woman. In fact, Invincible’s board of directors is a great example, as the three men and two women all bring something different to the table, and it is these differences that are the key to the board maintaining its objectivity,” she says.
“Within the business, we also don’t pigeon-hole people – we ensure that everybody in the company, from the MD to the receptionist, has undergone training on our core focus of valves. This training includes an online SA Valve Manufacturers Association (SAVMA) course.”
Du Plessis explains that this approach means that every employee knows the business and can understand it well enough to communicate effectively with customers. Even the girls who have been brought into the company’s learnership programme have undergone this training, regardless of whether their focus is accounts or fitting and turning.
“We view these learnerships as vital cogs in our drive to deliver skills and create jobs, which is why at minimum we bring on board two new learners per annum, as well as accommodating an additional four learners externally. By this I mean we provide support for learners who may not be studying anything that falls within our industry. For example, there is one girl whose studies we pay for who is studying to be a teacher. While this is well outside our ambit, we realise the broader benefit this will offer to SA.
“In fact, this for me underlines not only our approach to upliftment and gender equality, but also the way other businesses should look at the bigger picture. As far as I am concerned, we should all be contributing in some way, whether to our own industry or the nation in general, every single day,” she says.