For more than a decade Naadiya Moosajee has been working to support women in technical careers and to change the face of the engineering industry.
Naadiya Moosajee compares herself to Nokia, the company who started making cell phones long before anyone knew they needed one. The organisation she founded, WomEng (Women in Engineering), is a non-profit that is educating the engineering industry about the value of gender diversity and the importance of women in designing and building the world of the future. We chatted to Naadiya about her role in promoting women in technical fields and about changing the perceptions around being a female engineer.
#1MillionGirlsInSTEM Campaign: In 2016, to celebrate its 10-year anniversary, WomEng committed to reaching one million girls with information about STEM-related careers by 2026. The #1MillionGirlsInSTEM programme is run in partnership with UNESCO and has reached more than 50 000 young women so far.
Why did you start WomEng?
While I was studying engineering, I couldn’t help noticing that I was one of only five women in my class. Then, while I was doing holiday work, I learned that some of my male colleagues were getting paid for their internships while I was not. I was ready to give up. But I realised that if all of us women left engineering, then nothing would change.
The idea behind WomEng was to speak to women like myself and help them to make the transition from university to being an employee in a male dominated industry. What initially started out as a one-day workshop for female engineering students has now turned into an international movement.
The organisation has expanded quite a bit. Over the 13 years since we started WomEng, we’ve scaled out to 22 countries, running programmes with different schools, universities and corporate partners across the globe.
Explain the work you do?
We work both bottom-up and top-down. From a bottom-up perspective, we’re working with schoolgirls and teachers to educate them about the possibilities of pursuing an engineering career and to change perceptions around STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) roles. Called LaunchPad, the content we create is available as a free resource toolkit to anyone who wants to run these programmes in their school or community. We also have grants available to help fund their efforts.
Our top-down approach means working with forward-thinking engineering companies to help them achieve their diversity targets by hiring a more diverse workforce. It’s taken a decade to get momentum on this, but I believe we’re really making progress.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced with WomEng?
Our business has always been self-financed but payments from partners sometimes take several months, making it hard to stay afloat. For me, if you want people to take your business seriously, you need to behave like a serious business. We changed how we do business as WomEng and this has made a big difference. It’s hard to learn to walk away when partners and funders don’t offer you what you need.
For me, it is so important to promote and back female business leaders. The only way we’re going to have women signing cheques – and funding other women-led businesses – is if they’re the people starting and running the billion-rand businesses.
How will you get more women into STEM fields?
Around 10% of positions in STEM fields are held by women. This needs to change. We’ve challenged the companies we work with to take a long-term view. If they want to attract girls into STEM roles, they need to start by educating young women. In line with this, they also need to be patient because it’s going to take a few years before they will reap the benefits of their efforts.
One brand recently approached me about helping them with their inclusion efforts, but in the end, they weren’t willing to spend any money. If businesses are serious about diversity, they need to put money behind this sort of thing. Change doesn’t happen with love and fresh air. It takes money, commitment and men who are willing to open that door.
Why is gender diversity important?
We’ve been talking about equity and inclusion for years but not much has changed. So now I am trying to shift the conversation. Now I focus on the company’s bottom line. If businesses want to make more money, they can’t afford to ignore women. Women make up about 50% of the global population and they control about 80% of household purchasing power. By having women at the table, and promoting female-led innovation, you can better understand women’s needs and tap into this market opportunity.
25 000 beneficiaries across
22 countries worldwide
- Africa Catalyst project
- STEM awareness workshops and capacity building
- Tanzania, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Eswatini
- 700 high school girls, 350 female engineering students
- Africa Innovation Fellowship
- 9-month programme incubating 25 female founders in engineering and tech
- Launching in Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Ghana