The month of August in South Africa is known as Women’s Month and celebrates women’s contribution to the  development of the country and attempts to bring focus on closing the gender gap in society. On 9 August 1956, more than 20,000 women marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria against the then Apartheid government’s racist pass laws and this became an important month during which to highlight women’s issues.

While South Africa and the African continent have come a long way with women’s rights since the march in 1956, gender equality is still a contentious issue in the workplace. A great deal has been done to even the playing field between men and women, but opportunities for women, especially in Africa, are still glaringly low.

The United Nations Africa Human Development Report 2016: Advancing Gender Equality and Women’s  Empowerment in Africa states that although 61% of African women are working, they are still challenged by economic exclusion because their jobs are mostly in the informal sector.

To assist in bridging the gender gap, GE announced earlier this year that by 2020, the company will have placed 20,000 women in STEM roles and will have a 50:50 gender  for all technical entry-level programmes. For GE, it’s not just about filling the numbers, it’s also about creating an inclusive environment that generates sustained growth for all employees.

Three inspirational women in tech

“Women are playing key roles  at the Kusile power plant in project management, human resources, quality, construction and commissioning by bringing in their own management and leadership styles. Not saying that women are better, but they do tend to be very committed to the efficient execution of their work,” said Construction Manager at Kusile Power Station, Emilie Delevallee.

Once in full commercial service, Kusile will deliver 4,800MW of electricity to 3,5-million households in South Africa. A project of this magnitude requires highly technical expertise from qualified individuals. Emilie explained that beyond acquiring technical skills, she is constantly learning about her strengths, weaknesses and most importantly, the power of team work.

Closing Gender Gap

Image top and above: Vuyelwa Mahanyele (top) and Sandhya Ramlakhan (above) of GE South Africa believe that GE allows employees to thrive, regardless of their gender. Credit: Supplied

Programmes such as GE’s Women’s Network (GEWN) has been assisting over 70,000 GE women  across the world reach their full potential since the programme’s inception in 1997. GEWN was created to retain female employee numbers in key areas such  as technology, commercial and operations.

Vuyelwa Mahanyele, GE Business Development Director for Steam Power Systems in Southern Africa has been with GE for the past five years. During this time, Vuyelwa has grown professionally  while handling difficult tasks with grace. Vuyelwa said: “Working with a diverse group of truly talented people offers a unique perspective to growth and learning. This is evident when you look at the growing number of female leaders in the GE Power business.”

Sandhya Ramlakhan, GE Power Services Quality Leader for SSA shares the same sentiments as Vuyelwa and said:  “I find that the culture at GE allows one to thrive regardless of their  gender.” Sandhya has been an employee at GE for 10 years and has learnt how to be a leader, rather than a manager.

The way forward

A sustained balance of opportunity needs to be created for both men and women to grow in the workplace. The same can be said of the energy balance in the country.

Emilie, Vuyelwa and Sandhya all believe that growing the local talent pool will assist not only with  giving more women opportunities, but also with stimulating Africa’s economic growth.

GE has been instrumental in accelerating education across the continent, especially in STEM. For example, in Nigeria, the GE Girls in Technology Day has been helping girls and young women pursue career interests in STEM fields.