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Raising the roof

Versatile, driven, independent – these are a mere handful of words best used to describe women who play a pivotal role in the built environment. Already tough sector to crack, entering the South African construction sector can be arduous, however, several women have scaled the scaffolding and proved that it’s a women’s world too.

Women in built sector 03“Being a woman in a male dominated industry like the construction sector didn’t intimidate me that much. I’ve always been a girl who got along with boys very well. I played sports which helped me build my confidence and assured me that I was as competent as my male peers in any task at work, sometimes even exceeding my male counterparts,” says Petra Mitchell, managing director of ARTEP Central Solutions.

Petra Mitchell, ARTEP Central Solutions managing director. Image: ARTEP Central Solutions

Mitchell is a skills development professional with over seven years’ experience in the construction industry and more than 10 years’ experience in training and development. In 2015, she launched ARTEP Central Solutions, a 100% black female owned company established to identify the skills gap that exists in the market to service, empower and implement recommended strategies.

“The inclusion of women in any sector for that matter means we are moving into an economy that is inclusive of all and accommodating. More families will be fed, kids will go to school, the unemployment rate will decrease and poverty will be a thing of the past,” says Lebo Mangcwatywa, owner and managing director of Malatsi Sheetmetal and Insulation.

Malatsi Sheetmetal and Insulation is a 100% black female-owned business that provides industrial and residential maintenance services to the construction industry. “My father started the business in late 1990s and I used to help him during school holidays until he employed me as a business manager in 2005. In 2012, I became a co-owner of his business. Sadly, he passed away in 2015, and that’s when I took over as sole owner,” notes Mangcwatywa.

Mangcwatywa says her entry into the sector was challenging. “At first it wasn’t so great – it was hard and tiring. I had to prove myself to a whole lot of my male counterparts that I knew what I was doing. Secondly, I had to prove to other women who have been in the industry for a long period of time. The biggest lesson I learnt is that this industry is fast paced, and you need to be on your toes all the time.”

Climbing the construction ladder

Petra Mitchell entered the sector in 2009 working for the Saint Gobain Construction Products Academy. Her role offers advice and direction in the design and development of Women in built sector 04training material and content for the learnership, in consultation with relevant subject matter experts.

“I’ve built my career in a variety of roles and industries where I was not just the administrator but also a mentor, skills development facilitator and curriculum developer. I’m not only used to wearing many hats – I sincerely enjoy it; I thrive in an environment where no two work days are exactly the same,” she explains.

Lebo Mangcwatywa, owner of Malatsi Sheetmetal and Insulation. Image: Malatsi Sheetmetal and Insulation

With broad industry experience in government, Sector Education and Training Authorities (SETAs) and curriculum development for industries, Mitchell gained extensive knowledge of the Skills Development Act and relevant processes within the industry. In addition, she was part of the South African delegation that accompanied the deputy minister and director general of Higher Education and Training to the WorldSkills Americas 2012 competition in Brazil and the WorldSkills International 2013 competition in Germany.

“In 2012 I was part of the working group that started with the development of the Building Insulation Installer qualification led by Master Builders KwaZulu-Natal. In May 2016, the Thermal Insulation Products and Systems Association SA (TIPSASA) requested the expansion of the Building Insulation Installer qualification to include the Industrial Insulation Installer with the Manufacturing, Engineering and Related Services SETA (MerSETA) as the Development Quality Partner (DQP),” explains Mitchell.

She also played a vital role as the Learner Qualifications Development Facilitator (LQDF) in the development of the insulation installer qualification which was completed in August 2017 and is currently with the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) for final registration. This is the first formal insulation installer qualification registered in South Africa.

Training and transformation is key

Women in built sector 02Mitchell firmly believes in training, empowerment and interaction, something which helped her get accustomed to the industry. “When I entered into the industry I had no real experience but just my passion to see change and ensure that training providers train learners properly and not just train for the sake of training. With my limited experience in the industry I had to do extensive research and had to teach myself how the industry works. I also surrounded myself with industry experts and mentors,” highlights Mitchell.

Female construction professionals are on par with their male counterparts. Image: ITC-SA

While women are being taken more seriously in the industry and have been given more opportunities, Mitchell feels that they are still treated as if they can’t handle certain roles in the industry. “Men generally receive more praise for completing the same tasks as their female counterparts. This is a mindset that needs to be changed and, in my opinion, can only be achieved through training – government and the private sector currently offer training and support for women in the industry to encourage more participation.”

Mitchell continues, “I learnt that if I want to be taken seriously in a meeting, I need to walk in there armed to take the lead and be very prepared. Often technical questions will be addressed or redirected to male counterparts as if a woman is not capable of addressing the relevant technical matter at hand. We need to realise that women can own their space and are capable of handling technical matters.”

To make strides in the industry, Mitchell says that we need to involve our youth through training. “As President Ramaphosa mentioned in his Youth Day speech, we need to give the youth a chance; this is the only way they will get an opportunity to participate in the economy.”

She adds, “Having worked for the Department of Labour for two years and having access to the unemployment statistics and also seeing first-hand how unemployment affects our youth, I had to do something. Looking at the industry and how we train learners, I want to ensure that accredited training providers are well informed on policy and procedures.”

Mangcwatywa believes that transformation is happening but at a very slow pace. “When engaging with certain companies, I still find that I’m the only woman, as well as the only black woman, in the room and it makes you wonder. Open the industry to small businesses like ourselves to subcontract with an aim to move and grow. Furthermore, train and transfer skills to the unskilled.

“There are still entry barriers in the industry which mainly accommodates big companies. Currently, large companies that are willing to subcontract SMMEs are offering ridiculous amounts in exchange for hard labour, which leads to exploitation of labourers,” adds Mangcwatywa.

Words of wisdom

“We’ve done a few small projects in the past, which for me as a female-led company means a lot and shows that we are moving in the right direction. I would really like to see the company grow to bigger heights and encourage more female participation in the industry. I would also like to see large corporates take small unknown companies under their wing to help them grow and guide them to become medium, if not large, companies. Paying them fair and market related rates is also crucial,” says Mangcwatywa.

Highlighting her biggest achievements so far, Mitchell says she’s proud of herself for starting her own business, finalising the insulation installer qualification and being elected on the board of directors for TIPSASA in 2017. “Being elected means that I can focus on training and development within the industry. I will hold this position for three years and I’m currently the youngest director in the history of TIPSASA.”

On a personal level, Mitchell’s goal is to grow with the sector through training within similar industries, as well as to implement a platform where women can interact with one another and share their experiences, success stories and challenges, enabling them to learn from each other.

With the desire to influence other women in the sector, Mitchell says that women should arm themselves with the necessary knowledge skills, be positive and create opportunities. “If we don’t do it for ourselves, nobody else will.”

Mangcwatywa concurs, adding that females have the power and potential to change the industry. “Women have always been ready and able to climb up a ladder and fix a roof, paint or pick up a shovel – it’s just that we were perceived as weak and not able to do hard labour. We are ready and able!”


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