Women in South Africa’s power sector: Devaksha Maharaj

Devak­sha Maharaj, founder of IKIGAI Engi­neer­ing (© IASS)

Devak­sha Maharaj is the founder and Man­ag­ing Direc­tor of IKIGAI Engi­neer­ing, a con­sul­tan­cy offer­ing ener­gy man­age­ment advi­so­ry ser­vices to house­holds and com­pa­nies. Their ser­vices include mea­sure­ment and ver­i­fi­ca­tion as well as instal­la­tion and main­te­nance in the elec­tri­cal and renew­able ener­gy sectors.

In the course of her career, Devak­sha has had to cross sev­er­al bar­ri­ers as a woman in a male-dom­i­nat­ed sec­tor. It start­ed at home: com­ing from a very tra­di­tion­al back­ground, her aunt did not under­stand why she wants to do “a man’s job”. A bur­sary from ESKOM allowed Devak­sha to study engi­neer­ing at the Uni­ver­si­ty of KwaZu­lu-Natal. After com­plet­ing her bachelor’s degree, she worked at dif­fer­ent pow­er sta­tions and smelters before chang­ing to consulting.

Deal­ing with tox­ic sit­u­a­tions at work

At her pre­vi­ous work­place, Devak­sha expe­ri­enced gen­der-based dis­crim­i­na­tion by a male supe­ri­or, who she lat­er found out was noto­ri­ous for his inap­pro­pri­ate behav­iour towards women. But nobody dared to speak up, out of fear of los­ing their jobs. Devak­sha pushed back, which result­ed in her being sus­pend­ed. She launched a griev­ance pro­ce­dure and final­ly decid­ed to leave that com­pa­ny – a tough deci­sion, because she had loved her job. 

Dur­ing that dif­fi­cult time Devak­sha came to real­ize two things: First­ly, that South Africa does not sup­port women in cas­es like hers. She put a lot of mon­ey into fil­ing her legal com­plaint and final­ly had to drop the case, because tak­ing it to court would have been too expen­sive. Her advice for oth­er women going through sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tions is to reach out to some­body like her. She says that with the net­works she has today, she would be able to deal with the sit­u­a­tion differently.

The sec­ond les­son she learnt was that she had always giv­en every­thing for the com­pa­nies she worked for and got lit­tle back, so she decid­ed to start her own busi­ness – but first, she had to learn how to be an entre­pre­neur from scratch. IKIGAI Engi­neer­ing kicked off in 2018. Besides con­sul­tan­cy ser­vices, the com­pa­ny also has a strong focus on train­ing and devel­op­ment and STEM (sci­ence, tech­nol­o­gy, engi­neer­ing and math) edu­ca­tion for kids.

How to get more women into tech­ni­cal jobs?

The STEM cours­es tar­get kids as young as two years old: “It is impor­tant to get the kids inter­est­ed in the top­ic at a very young age. And they need to learn that women can do these jobs, too – which is why we go into schools and talk to them, so they can see us”, Devak­sha explains.

On being asked what else she con­sid­ers impor­tant to sup­port women in ener­gy careers, Devak­sha high­lights the role of men­tors: many of the women she men­tors her­self are scared to speak up in a room full of men, an inse­cu­ri­ty they work on togeth­er. Devaksha’s own men­tor is a new mum, like her­self, so they can dis­cuss the hard­ships of com­bin­ing a career with fam­i­ly life.

Devak­sha and her col­league Alli­cia at an Ener­gy Con­fer­ence in June 2022 (© IASS)

Final­ly, it also takes polit­i­cal change to encour­age women to work in the ener­gy sec­tor. Devak­sha is there­fore part of the Ener­gy Sec­tor Gen­der Min­is­te­r­i­al Advi­so­ry Coun­cil, which has the role of mon­i­tor­ing the par­tic­i­pa­tion of women in the ener­gy sec­tor and report­ing to the min­is­ter and his executives.

A lot still needs to change, Devak­sha says, remem­ber­ing meet­ings in which she was asked to take min­utes just because she was a woman, even though it was clear­ly some­one else’s job. Her impres­sion is that many females are afraid to push back, but it must be done: “You have to do things very grace­ful­ly. But make sure they under­stand who the engi­neer in the room is.”


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This arti­cle is the sum­ma­ry of an inter­view, con­duct­ed in the course of our research on oppor­tu­ni­ties and bar­ri­ers for women in the pow­er sec­tor in South Africa.