High Gear initiative tackles gender equity and social inclusion in SA’s automotive components manufacturing sector

Research undertaken to explore critical gender equity and social inclusion issues within the South African automotive component manufacturing sector has revealed commonalities in the experience of young women that can help industry organisations achieve the transformational vision of the Automotive Master Plan 2035.

South Africa’s Automotive Master Plan 2035 sets the vision for the country’s automotive sector as a globally competitive and transformed industry that actively contributes to the sustainable development of South Africa’s productive economy. A key challenge lies behind the ‘transformed’ element of the industry’s Master Plan because just one-third of workers are women. Men have historically dominated the manufacturing, engineering and related services sectors in the country, with the 23% of workers being women, many of whom are in non-production related job roles.

Through the High Gear initiative, the National Association of Automotive Component and Allied Manufacturers (NAACAM), in partnership with IYF, conducted gender equity research in the sector and have compiled case studies of young women’s individual pathways into advanced manufacturing production careers, and the barriers and opportunities they encountered in a historically male-dominated industry.

Based on interviews with female TVET engineering students, as well as women working in automotive components manufacturing and employers who are actively advocating for increased gender equity in the industry, several common barriers to gender transformation were identified. These barriers include long-standing overrepresentation of men in the sector, a lack of early exposure to technical careers, limited numbers of female role models, lack of mentors and support systems, as well as perceptions that women must prove themselves more than their male counterparts to be taken seriously.

In terms of opportunities uncovered, “We found that there is no universal route for women to enter engineering careers or the automotive component manufacturing industry. However, there was a common element of early exposure to the idea of engineering at a crucial time in the young women’s lives, whether through a family or community member or even the media. The next critical hurdle is the perception of engineering as being a career for males. In both cases, we have found that more supportive family and community environments can go a long way to opening engineering career pathways for women,” says Angelina Govindsamy, High Gear’s Employer Partnership Officer.

High Gear is a four-year initiative created to strengthen the market relevance of the Technical, Vocational, Education and Training (TVET) college system by placing automotive component manufacturing industry players at the centre of course design and delivery. By doing this, High Gear aims to generate enthusiasm among both educators and young people, while orienting the syllabus around skills and knowledge the industry requires most urgently.

“Respondents indicated that having female role models made it much easier for other women to follow in their footsteps. Most of the women interviewed also believed students interested in engineering careers need to be provided with more information about what to expect in the workplace and how roles may change, such as from being technical specialists to potential managers of other employees,” adds Govindsamy.

Nqobile Mbongwa, an Electrical Engineering N6 student at Elangeni College in Durban, says that she initially didn’t have her family’s support to study engineering as it was seen not to be a proper career for a woman like nursing. “My neighbour is a successful engineer and she motivated me to follow this career path and now my family see how well I am doing and understand my choice,” Mbongwa says.

A significant obstacle to women employees, in the experience of those interviewed, is that women need to prove themselves to be recognised and respected, whereas their male counterparts are assumed to know what they are doing.

“The findings reflect an authority and status gap between men and women, regardless of how highly the women have achieved or how educated or powerful they are,” says Govindsamy.

Women who had succeeded in engineering careers said that drive, dedication, passion and interest in furthering themselves professionally had overcome all obstacles. A common thread was that the challenges and naysayers tended to motivate women to break the mould and prove they can succeed. In terms of external factors that needed to be in place, the interviewees ranked company training and development programmes top of the list, alongside mentorship.

From the employer’s perspective, CSI programmes targeting training and development of female talent, as well as SETA-sponsored apprenticeship, learnership and internship programmes had been successful in encouraging young women in to begin technical careers.

“We believe that disseminating compelling content from the research will inspire female TVET college students to consider careers in advanced manufacturing, while also creating a template that other manufacturers can follow to address gender imbalances,” says NAACAM Commercial Director Shivani Singh.

According to Singh, training and development programmes organised by employers, workplace initiatives championing gender equity and the retention of young women, as well as company cultures that support women through mentoring and support would go a long way in developing a more balanced next generation of engineers.

Of the companies in the sector identified as being champions of gender equity, each was requested to propose two interviewees – one company representative and one young female employee. TVET engineering students from Elangeni College – a High Gear partner college – were also approached for interviews, which included their assessment of how changes at the college had helped make it easier for young women to succeed in their engineering studies.