Women in South Africa’s power sector: Vuyo Matiwane

Vuyo, Grid man­ag­er at BTE Renew­ables (© IASS)

Vuy­ol­wethu Mati­wane, or Vuyo, is a Tech­ni­cal Project Devel­op­ment Man­ag­er (for­mer­ly Grid man­ag­er) at BTE Renew­ables, an ener­gy pro­duc­er with util­i­ty-scale wind and solar projects across Africa. She holds a Bach­e­lor in Elec­tri­cal Engi­neer­ing and is cur­rent­ly con­clud­ing her Master’s in Wind Ener­gy at DTU in Denmark.

Vuyo grew up in a vil­lage with­out elec­tric­i­ty in the East­ern Cape with­out elec­tric­i­ty. One day her father, who worked in a mine, brought home a small solar pan­el. The device allowed the fam­i­ly to charge their phones and bat­ter­ies and lis­ten to the radio. It was just a start, but Vuyo’s fas­ci­na­tion for elec­tric­i­ty was born. She was good at school, so it was always clear that she would go to uni­ver­si­ty, despite mul­ti­ple bar­ri­ers: She need­ed a bur­sary, for which she had to be a top stu­dent. And once her class­es start­ed, she real­ized that only a quar­ter of her class­mates in elec­tri­cal engi­neer­ing were women.

“Be scared, but do it anyway”

For years at work, Vuyo was usu­al­ly the only female and often the youngest in the room – not an easy sit­u­a­tion, espe­cial­ly for an intro­vert like her. She had to face inter­nal bar­ri­ers, and she won­dered if she belonged and if any­one want­ed to hear her opin­ion. That is when Vuyo decid­ed on a rule that she has fol­lowed ever since: nev­er to leave a meet­ing with­out say­ing some­thing. “Con­fi­dence builds over time. Be scared, but do it any­way”, Vuyo says with a smile. “If I did not speak up in that meet­ing back then, I would not be speak­ing in audi­to­ri­ums in front of 100 peo­ple now.”

The ener­gy sec­tor is still a man’s world – and not only in total num­bers: men also hold most senior posi­tions. Vuyo says she always felt like she had to be excep­tion­al at her job, so that nobody could say she was not good at it because she is a woman. “On the one hand you have impos­tor syn­drome, on the oth­er hand, you have to be the best”, she says, laugh­ing. This pres­sure, com­bined with a heavy work­load and site vis­its that can some­times take weeks, leaves lit­tle time for a part­ner or fam­i­ly. “Reduced work­ing hours are not com­mon in South Africa but would help women to have a career and a fam­i­ly. As would being able to work part­ly from home and hav­ing day-care cen­tres at offices for those with fam­i­lies and kids.”

Guid­ing women to start a career in renew­ables

Even though there is still a lot that needs to change, Vuyo sees a pos­i­tive trend: the indus­try is active­ly look­ing to employ more women, and the ener­gy tran­si­tion is cre­at­ing new jobs that allow women to be in tech­ni­cal posi­tions with­out doing hard phys­i­cal labour. In her opin­ion, job infor­ma­tion cam­paigns and men­tor­ship pro­grammes should start in high school, because that’s when kids start mak­ing deci­sions about their career. She regrets that she nev­er had a men­tor that could show her the ropes. Now she is part of the men­tor­ing pro­gramme “Ener­gis­ing Women to Advance the Ener­gy Tran­si­tion”, orga­nized by the Glob­al Women’s Net­work for the Ener­gy Tran­si­tion (GWNET) in part­ner­ship with the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Inter­na­tionale Zusam­me­nar­beit (GIZ), and wish­es to take on that role her­self and guide oth­er young and emerg­ing female pro­fes­sion­als in the renew­able ener­gy sec­tor. It’s about time that she is no longer often the only woman in the room, she adds.


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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.