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Breaking gender stereotypes in the manufacturing sector

26 February 2020

The engineering and manufacturing industry has, traditionally, been a male dominated sector. However the world is evolving to break stereotypes in all business environments. A shining example of this paradigm shift must be Estie van Zyl, the first female plant manager in the Saint-Gobain Sub-Saharan African delegation.

Her journey within the manufacturing sector started some 13 years ago and, being an industrial engineer by trade, her success was almost guaranteed. But why, it must be asked, did van Zyl choose a career in this particular industry? “What drew me to manufacturing were the visible safety awareness and culture at Gyproc and the opportunity to start the journey of discovery in world class manufacturing practices (WCM). For me, these areas were really exciting, and I wanted to develop my skills and understanding of the theory and practicalities involved in this sector.”

The experience has been an exciting one, to say the least. In her years in the manufacturing environment she has garnered experience and expertise across the board from engineering, and production, to WCM and planning. “Whatever capacities I find myself operating in I try gain as much experience as possible. When occupied in the planning department I worked closely with a SAP consultant and realised without proper understanding of all aspects of a system or process you get stuck on issues that should be easily resolved. By using a holistic approach to my duties, I was able to bring the WCM programme at the Donn Products Factory to a Bronze status, making this the first plant in South Africa to achieve this award. Essentially, I have learned that if all departments work as a team towards a common goal, coupled with strong leadership and an overall understanding of each component, anything is possible. When moving into the production arena, which was my first opportunity to lead a team, I became aware of the value of the people you are working with. Respect them, value their opinions, and they will be productive. Lastly, being a part of the engineering environment, I was able to bridge some of the technical gaps that I had and gave me the opportunity to change the mind-sets of people that were very set in their ways. No matter where you find yourself, there is always something to learn.”

In her current role van Zyl says she makes a point of learning as much as possible from her superiors. “Learning and picking up experience is critical. Once you stop learning, you stop growing. It has been a challenging, yet very exciting journey where every day delivers a new challenge. While self-improvement is vitally important for personal growth and professional success, I believe that a strong focus should still be maintained on people and their skills development. Without a competent team no business, or in my case, plant can be successful. Personally, I have changed from an unsure young woman, on my first day at Gyproc, to a strong, confident leader who is respectful of others no matter what skill level they are on.”

Currently, van Zyl has a clear vision of the role the plant needs to play within the organisation at large. “I believe that we, as a highly passionate and fully engaged team will continue to manufacture sustainable and cost efficient products of excellent quality to satisfy all our customer needs. We will indeed be an indispensable cog within the company as a whole that will contribute to the profitable growth of the business. On a personal note, I believe in maintaining a healthy work-life balance and even though I am married, with three boys, this is possible. I see my role in the company is as not only benefiting Saint-Gobain, but also enhancing my family life. I make sure that I focus on the priorities that are in the moment and spend quality time with my family during weekends.”

Going forward, van Zyl will not be resting on her laurels and plans to take advantage of all opportunities that come her way. “I have a number of goals I am working toward, some immediate, some more long-term. I plan to complete my GCC in engineering and then go for my MBL and, with this behind me, ensure I gain the required experience, in different plants, in order to excel at management at the highest level possible. I also want to pay it forward. Being people-oriented and fostering employee development is a real passion of mine and, when you are a manager, you are in a great position to focus on the development and growth of your employees – people must enjoy coming to work, must be challenged, must be inspired, and productivity and efficiency will invariably increase.”

In conclusion, van Zyl has a few pearls of wisdom for other aspiring women in engineering fields. “Set the trends. If you are a leader, be one. Constantly strive for more so you won’t become complacent. Learn from every situation, even your failures. That is how you grow. You must also remember, it’s all about having the right skills, standards and personality. It is important to break the stigma that women are not made for engineering. Be curious, be persistent. Ask lots of questions. Find good mentors. It’s ok to make mistakes, use them as learning opportunities.”

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