The number of women participating in the US construction industry is at an all-time high of 14%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The figure is somewhat lower in South Africa, where women make up only 10% of the labour force; many other countries have similar levels of female participation in construction.
Clearly, in terms of gender representivity, the industry has a way to go. This disparity is founded in long-established social norms and cultural expectations. It’s well accepted that in such instances, role models have a key role to play in changing perceptions and encouraging more women to pursue careers.
Two such successful women who are showing just how much women can achieve in the construction and adjacent industries are Tshidi Mndzebele and Dr. Julia Petla. Both women are CEOs of their respective companies, AvenirHoldings and Amedzo. AvenirHoldings is an engineering consulting and project management firm, and also offers construction and facilities management, and training and development. Amedzo offers turnkey projects in various aspects of construction.
Both companies testify to the success of the women leading them. AvenirHoldings has worked on numerous high-value projects for clients like Transnet, Eskom, ArcellorMittal South Africa, LaFargeHolcim and many others. Amedzo’s two highest value projects were for DeBeers’ Venetia Mine and in the construction of the Musina Ring Road.
Mndzebele, a Professional Industrial Engineering Technologist and Certified Director, as well as a Master Builders Association North exco member, says that she was initially attracted to engineering because it was a male-dominated industry and wanted to increase her probability of employment. “I saw it as an opportunity both to challenge myself and overturn the gender stereotypes in engineering and allied industries,” she laughs. “I wanted to make my mark.”
Petla says, “Women definitely have to overcome the widely held view that construction work is better suited to men. Women in the industry have to work twice as hard to earn a seat at the table,” she reflects, adding that the men don’t make the industry one particularly welcoming to women.
Mndzebele says that after 20 years, things are still difficult for her in that she constantly has to find ways of subtly asserting herself. Like many women in business, she recognises the reality of imposter syndrome – the feeling that she’s got keep on proving herself. Despite all her qualifications, which include an MBA from GIBS, she is currently working towards a PhD at Wits. “As women, I think we feel the need to have documentary proof that we are entitled to be where we are,” she says. “We have to learn to believe in ourselves.”
Mndzebele is supported by her engineer husband who works happily in the business alongside her.
Networks are important platforms for success
Mentorship and building strong networks are both seen as key drivers of success in any industry, but particularly for women battling the establishment. “Building strong networks and finding mentors in the construction industry can help women access opportunities and navigate potential challenges,” says Petla. “Why reinvent the wheel when you can take advantage of those who’ve completed the journey.”
One of the hidden barriers women face in construction is the boys’ club mentality that plays out on the golf course or at Friday end-of-the-week braais. Aside from anything else, women tend to be excluded from such events because of the difficult work/life balance they have to strike as the primary caregivers in most families.
Mndzebele says that women shouldn’t restrict themselves to certain roles within construction – they are more than capable of taking on any of them. “Women have a unique contribution to make because they see things differently. Where men see things in black and white, we see a more complex, holistic picture, so our decisions are perhaps more measured,” she argues. “From a transformational point of view – so important in a world that is changing so fast – female leaders are often better at bringing everybody along.”
Petla agrees, saying that if you are passionate about something, you will be able to achieve it: “I always say that when all is said and done, passion is what will sustain you – even when things are looking at their bleakest.”
Mndzebele says she wouldn’t change a thing in her career – even the challenges and failures. She is clear that hardships are good learning experiences. “I’m grateful for the journey I’ve had; it’s made me what I am,” she says. “I feel a great obligation to play my part in providing a new generation of women in engineering and construction with the guidance and mentorship I benefited from.”