Aeronautical Society celebrates women in emerging technologies


August is traditionally Women’s Month and the Aeronautical Society of South Africa (Cape Chapter) took the opportunity to hold a seminar on Women in Emerging Technologies.

Held on Friday 5 August, the breakfast seminar brought together over forty women from the engineering, space, educational, air force and financing sectors to present on their industry, discuss their personal professional journey, the role of women and the impact of societal norms and gender inequality.

With the seminar facilitated by Ana-Mia Louw, GM at Simera Sense, a company that produces high-precision optical payloads for small satellites, the keynote address was delivered by Jessie Ndaba, a qualified satellite engineer and Chief Commercial Officer at Astrofica Technologies, a space technology company she co-founded in 2017.

Ndaba traced her journey from growing up in Soweto to representing South Africa (and Africa) at international satellite fora. Recognising the plight of subsistence farmers and the poor in Africa, Ndaba noted that the reasons for becoming a space engineer was not just to design and build satellites and put them into space, “but it was to make the difference in people’s lives. Because what (we) do at the end of the day, it is to ensure that (we) improve the economy, it is to ensure that we increase our job opportunities” utilising satellite technology.

As a mentor to young South Africans in the space industry, Ndaba has this advice: “Please be careful of how you treat people around you. Education is the key to open the door for you. But your attitude will determine whether you stay behind doors or advance to the boardroom. It could really make or break your life.”

“(The) Space industry is so small, which is why it is very careful to ensure that you don’t burn any bridges. You don’t step on other people’s toes, because you’re going to need them,” she explained.

Concluding her address, Ndaba reflected on an international Space conference she attended over ten years ago, when coming out of the women’s bathroom, she noticed the long queue for the men’s facilities whilst that for women was free. “This,” she said, “was a very visual representation of the lack of women in the space industry and it’s great that we’re all here today because you need to increase (female representation).

Professor Debbie Blaine, associate professor in Mechanical and Mechatronics Engineering at Stellenbosch University, discussed the challenges faced by educators in instilling technical and professional skills within a four-year engineering degree.

Blaine also provided examples of women in the engineering sector in Africa who had risen to the top of their field. She expounded on the difficulties faced by these women in the various countries, but were still making a difference in the engineering discipline despite the male dominated industry and patriarchal societies in which some of the women lived.

An acronym filled presentation on crypto/blockchain technologies was presented by Devon Krantz, CEO of Linum Labs, a software development studio bridging the gap between people and Web3 technology through blockchain software development and consulting. Those present were educated in the new technologies of the Web3, blockchain and NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens). Kranz also presented on opportunities for women in blockchain, cryptocurrency and the Web3 development industry.

Advocate Lynn Coleridge-Zils, Director Policy and Implementation at the Western Cape Education Department, provided a comparative analysis between males and females in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) and in the education schooling sector in the Western Cape. She emphasised that those with talent need to come from all sectors of society, but it was harder for girls to attend school than boys and persistent gender inequalities that permeate many sectors of society should not go unattended. It was noted that the gender gap is not narrowing fast enough, despite awareness programs to encourage girls and women to enter STEM fields. Studies have shown that the underrepresentation of women in the scientific arena is correlated with limited access to good science education. Some of the barriers for increased female participation in the engineering field includes unconscious bias amongst managers, lack of work/life balance, lack of female role models and women’s confidence and aspirations.

Finally, Rashmee Ragaven provided information on investment in South Africa. Being responsible for Investment Facilitation/Promotion at Invest SA, a DTI division which is the focal point for all foreign direct investment into the country. Ragaven showed the various opportunities for the greater advancement of women, such as expanded programmes and processes to accelerate women participation in supply chain and procurement and opportunities for women to start their own businesses.

The Aeronautical Society of South Africa (AeSSA) is a fully-fledged division of the Royal Aeronautical Society. Its membership comprises aerospace professionals, corporate company members and enthusiastic aviation amateurs. Additionally, it carries out accreditation of university and technikon courses on behalf of the Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA).