Experiencing the 2013 SAWomEng Conference
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” ~ Nelson Mandela
“Problems become opportunities when the right people join together.” ~ Unknown
It took me a while to get a handle on how I was going to tell this story. Then I came across the two quotes above…and an energy-saving fluorescent light switched on in my head.
We are in the middle of August, Women’s month here in South Africa. My Women’s month started on Sunday, 30 June 2013 (the start of this year’s conference). Prior to that day all I knew about SAWomEng was that they were an NPO focused on helping women in the Engineering sector. I did not know exactly how this help was given at the time and I walked into the conference venue that Sunday afternoon unsure of what to expect. Like most people, I had a stereotypical image of female engineers and when I saw a whole lot of petite, pretty ladies (in heels) I was completely confused. I walked into the conference room and ended up in a 1920’s night club. I was convinced that I was at the wrong venue But was assured that it was all part of the introductory ‘ice-breaker’ – an opportunity for the sixty delegates (who were carefully selected from numerous applications) to get to know one another and for the conference team to acquaint the ladies with their schedules for the remainder of the week ahead.
So, what exactly is Conference? It is one of three strategies that SAWomEng employs to assist females in Engineering. Conference specifically targets female students who are either in their penultimate or final year of study at university and its purpose is twofold: firstly, to impart soft skills that will assist the students when it is time for them to seek employment; secondly, it gives them an opportunity to flex their cerebral muscles and apply their theoretical knowledge to a technical challenge. Conference is a five-day marathon, jam-packed with workshops and lab time, with a few networking opportunities thrown in.
SAWomEng has been in existence for eight years and there have been eight Conferences. What makes an SAWomEng conference unique is the technical challenge. Every year, the technical project is centred on an engineering and environmental problem that we face in South Africa and this year the big issue is that of hydraulic fracturing or fracking. The delegates were split into six teams of ten, each cheekily named after a gas associated with fracking: Methane, Ethane, Hexane, Propane, Butane and Pentane. The technical project had two deliverables: a two-page written report and a debate on the final day.
When I walked into the conference venue on the first day, I felt completely out of place. I am not an engineer. While I loved Mathematics at school, Science and I were not friends and to say that I was happy to leave it after I’d finished high school would be the understatement of the century. Things of a scientific nature have never interested me, so my scientific knowledge is minimal to non-existent. The strongest emotion I felt when I was invited to tell the story of Conference 2013 was fear – I didn’t know whether I would be able to understand the technical side of things and do justice to their story.
However, I was warmly welcomed by the SAWomEng Conference team and as the week progressed, I found myself learning more than I’d thought I would. What was supposed to be a ‘job’ turned out to be an incredibly enriching experience for me. It would take me forever to go into all that happened during Conference week but there were three aspects that were particularly inspiring to me…
1. Delegates were selected from all over the country and flown to Cape Town for the week. Sixty young ladies, away from their homes and families, with a monumental amount of work to do with group members they have never met. I was impressed by the maturity they displayed but what impressed me even more was how they tackled the work part of conference – they showed us that they were confident in their knowledge but also hungry and eager to add to it. They had the privilege of meeting some illustrious personalities from industry, and I’m pleased to say that the delegates made the most of those meetings by asking lots of pertinent questions and engaging with the various workshop speakers and industry engineers.
2. On the third evening of the conference, the delegates were treated to a dinner by Unilever, a multi-national consumer goodscompany which manufacturers over 400 household brands (when I use my Vaseline now, the U symbol pops into my head immediately).
The purpose of the evening was to enlighten the delegates on how engineers fit into their organisation and how they are attempting to address some pressing global environmental and social issues.The delegates got firsthand experience as to what it is like to work in the supply chain at Unilever by playing the ‘Supply Chain Game’. For all the fun they had, the best part of the evening was meeting the Unilever team. Most of the ladies in the team were ex-delegates from previous conferences, SAWomEng success stories – a validation of the work that the organisation does, an embodiment of how education can change the world and hereby exemplifying that when the right people join together, opportunity will present itself.
3. Being an educator myself, it was very gratifying to see the delegates put their new skills to use. Some of them even came to practice their networking skills on me during the evening of the @Network Cocktail (which I found rather amusing, as the one delegate said to me, “We saw you every day and wondered who you were because you never spoke”). Even I found myself completely engaged in and able to follow the arguments of the technical debates.
Mark Twain said, “Write what you know”. Though I may be able to venture a guess as to how the sixty delegates felt when they left Cape Town after Conference, I will never know exactly how it has affected their lives. I do know that it has affected mine in the best way.
To the entire conference team I would like to extend heartfelt THANKS for making me feel welcome. This experience has been both eye-opening and educational. But there are a few in particular I would like to thank…co-founder, Naadiya Moosajee, for extending the invitation to attend Conference 2013, and Bhavani Morarjee and drill sergeant, Sameeha Osman Latib, for accommodating me in all the activity on the last minute.
To the delegates of Conference 2013: you ladies have inspired me to be more than I am. The corporate and working world is indeed a ‘zoo with wild animals’ – but I have full faith that armed with your new weapons, you will traverse the jungle and change the world.
by Mariam Osman