“I remember when I had just started as a junior metallurgist, I had to give an operational instruction to one of the teams. A man from the team told me that he will not take an instruction from a woman. I was shocked!”- says ‘Mining Powerhouse’, Thulisile Gama, who is making a name for herself in the Mining and Metals sector.
Thulisile holds a BSc Metallurgical Engineering degree from the University of the Witwatersrand and is a Senior Metallurgist at Tronox KZN Sands. She has served as chairperson of Tronox Women’s Network, a global network aimed at supporting the professional development of women in engineering. She is a mentor to young girls, particularly those from the rural areas.
Dressed in stuffy, hot overalls with big safety boots on, climbing high staircases of tall metal equipment, with temperatures higher than 1000oC, her work environment is not an easy one at all!. “I get paid to play with sand!”, she says playfully.
What made you choose your field of work and what has made you stay in it so far?
Mining is the backbone of South Africa’s economy. I joined this industry because I am passionate about natural resources and I wanted to be part of the bigger picture. There is never a dull moment. From supply-demand dynamics of different commodities, advancement in technology, or the status of the global economy, each day brings something new.
All these changes affect the industry and as engineers, we are forced to implement more innovative solutions to ensure the survival of companies. I enjoy the variety of work and the daily challenges that my job provides.Confidence, self-esteem, and assertiveness are key aspects for women to be heard. Click To Tweet
Take us through what you do on a typical day at work.
There is never a ‘typical’ day at work and that’s what I like about my job. One day I find myself sitting in long strategic meetings, and the next day I am offering solutions to process issues at the plant. Each morning I review the production of the previous day and ensure that the quantity and quality are within specification. Initiating and identifying continuous improvement ideas that will save cost is also something that I incorporate into my daily decision-making and thinking.
I constantly remind myself that as women, we have the same thinking ability as men. Click To Tweet
How do you manage to get your opinions heard in a room full of male engineering experts?
If I’m invited to a meeting, I believe that my technical skills and opinions are needed and I deserve to be there. One thing that I constantly remind myself of is that as women, we have the same thinking ability as men. When voicing my opinion, I make sure that I do not allow myself to be interrupted in the process. Confidence, self-esteem, and assertiveness are key aspects of being heard as women.
Some studies have found that women tend to leave their engineering careers after some time. Why do you think this is the case?
A lack of female role models in mining is a major contributor to female engineers leaving the industry. Having role models who are the same gender as you, who have walked the same path can go a long way. For us women to influence the world of mining, we need to to be more accommodating of females and build a network of solidarity. It is important for women to support other women and serve as mentors to young girls.
In South Africa, mining companies have been driving to up their female employee numbers by offering women bursaries. Sometimes, women study engineering only because they are offered a bursary. I’ve seen this happening especially to African people from disadvantaged communities who cannot afford to fund their own studies. Some realize only when they start work that engineering is not for them and quit.
For us women to influence the world of Mining, we need to build a network of solidarity. Click To Tweet
How can young women interested in the mining industry better prepare themselves for a career as a metallurgist?
For young females who are interested in pursuing metallurgy as a career, I would say ‘go for it!’ It is a challenging environment but with lots of opportunities.
When I started work, I didn’t want to acknowledge the gender barrier but I have come to see my gender as a strength and I now focus on leveraging it. Invest time in researching about this field. Enter this industry because of passion, not money, and find yourself a mentor or role model.
Having an engineering degree doesn’t mean that you are not going to crawl and get dirty. You need to work your way up the ranks, starting at the bottom. It’s also important to be teachable. Be keen to learn and take the initiative to do so. Focus on building strong fundamentals when you start as a junior, you’ll need those as you progress in your career.
How do you let your hair down after a long week of solving complex engineering problems and ‘playing with sand’?
I spend time with my awesome son and read a lot when I’m not at work. I enjoy the outdoor life, exploring new places and different cultures. Running also liberates me. Also, I have a passion for fashion and I’m planning to start my own clothing line in the near future!
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