Women in South Africa’s power sector: Lenah Mabusela

Lenah Mabusela, Pow­er Engi­neer at Glo­beleq (© IASS)

Lenah Mabusela is a Pow­er Engi­neer at Glo­beleq, an inter­na­tion­al pow­er com­pa­ny. Hav­ing grown up in a town­ship, she chose engi­neer­ing because it was con­sid­ered a sta­ble career. A bur­sary from ESKOM, South Africa’s state-owned elec­tric­i­ty util­i­ty, enabled her to study Elec­tri­cal Engineering.

At the time she grad­u­at­ed from uni­ver­si­ty, ESKOM put a halt on renew­ables because they were not con­sid­ered eco­nom­i­cal­ly fea­si­ble – a sit­u­a­tion very dif­fer­ent from today. So Lenah worked at a petro­chem­i­cal plant in Mpumalan­ga for a while, where she was tasked with opti­miz­ing oper­a­tions. She lived in a small town close to the plant, sur­round­ed most­ly by men – at times, it was a rather harsh envi­ron­ment to work and live in. The sit­u­a­tion is bet­ter at her cur­rent employ­er. At Glo­beleq, more and more women hold senior posi­tions, even in tech­ni­cal fields.

Prov­ing your competence

Lenah remem­bers many occa­sions when she was treat­ed dif­fer­ent­ly because she is a woman. Her requests were ignored, and as a con­se­quence, her work was delayed. But she feels she can’t com­plain. And she can’t make mis­takes at work, because it will be blamed on her gen­der. Which is prob­lem­at­ic: “Mis­takes hap­pen. You will nev­er do any­thing worth­while if you always avoid mak­ing mistakes.”

In her expe­ri­ence, even if women have the same qual­i­fi­ca­tion as their male peers, they still always need to prove their com­pe­tence. After an inci­dent where some of her male col­leagues behaved very unpro­fes­sion­al­ly, rais­ing their voic­es at her, she says she was done being nice. But she remained pro­fes­sion­al. “You can nev­er be out of char­ac­ter. You always have to be the big­ger per­son.” It can be exhaust­ing at times, but Lenah says there are also pos­i­tive exam­ples. “Most of the seniors are male, and you need their sup­port. Some are very pro­fes­sion­al, and that’s all you need. You don’t need any­body to hold your hand.”

Hav­ing to choose

Tech­ni­cian at a Glo­beleq Pow­er Plant (© Globeleq)

Like many women, Lenah felt like she had to choose between fam­i­ly and a career. She says women are still expect­ed to care for chil­dren and do the house­work on top of their paid job. “Men can have a career and a fam­i­ly with­out com­pro­mis­ing. A woman has to sac­ri­fice one, to some extent.” She believes that job secu­ri­ty would improve the sit­u­a­tion for women a lot. But as long as it’s women who stay home with the kids, they will always have a dis­ad­van­tage com­pared to their male col­leagues because they can’t progress at work. We still have a long way to go in terms of equal­i­ty, Lenah says, but she is hope­ful: the envi­ron­ment is chang­ing. More and more women are enter­ing the pow­er sec­tor, though they are not always giv­en the tasks they should be giv­en. “The indus­try needs to under­stand that women are extreme­ly capa­ble. That they do a lot with lit­tle resources. And girls need to under­stand that, too.”


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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.