Women help help to champion engineering firms’s presence in Africa

aecom-africa-marketing-and-communications-director-rashree-maharajThis is particularly welcome at a time when 31% of South African companies have no female representation in senior leadership roles, according to the latest Gender (Dis)parity in South Africa report, published by Bain & Company. The World Economic Forum’s (WEF’s) Global Gender Gap Report 2016 highlights that the economic participation and political empowerment gap between men and women remains wide globally.

Maharaj acknowledges that challenges remain in closing the gender gap across various indicators in Africa and globally. However, she believes that countries in Africa are committed to promoting the empowerment of women at home and in the workplace. While the WEF report points to a gender gap of 32.1% in sub-Saharan Africa, the region also has a high level of female participation in its labour force. In terms of this indicator, 11 countries from sub-Saharan Africa are in the global top 20, with Mozambique, Malawi, Rwanda, and Burundi having a higher representation of women in the labour force than men.

AECOM Africa reflects this trend in that 34.5% of its workforce is female. “We continue to work towards increasing the female presence in the business. However, our efforts have to be seen in the context of progress in an industry, as well as in terms of career paths, that have been associated with, and dominated by, men historically,” Maharaj comments. She points to Uganda, where Dr Bridget Ssamula has been appointed as Managing Director, as well as to Fadzai Nyamasve, who was recently appointed as the Strategy and Growth Director for AECOM in Africa.

Maharaj has clearly demonstrated her leadership expertise since joining AECOM in early 2016, when there was little understanding of what marketing, communications, and public relations was about. “The strategy was piecemeal instead of coordinated and comprehensive, which meant little value was derived from what was being spent.”

Having implemented a successful marketing strategy at another consulting engineering company prior to joining AECOM, Maharaj was comfortable with the challenge. She not only had to repeat her earlier achievement, but had to build up the communications department from scratch. Of particular assistance in this regard has been AECOM’s approach to diversity and inclusivity, which are core values espoused by Carlos Poñe, Chief Executive for Africa.

“When I began my career at AECOM, I was informed it was an executive position. I found in the past that the word ‘executive’ is used for anyone in senior management. During my first two weeks here, however, I was called into the boardroom to attend the weekly executive committee meeting. It hit home that my role at AECOM was not a position to be taken lightly,” Maharaj points out.

An example of the esteem and respect that Maharaj has garnered at AECOM to date is that she was nominated as one of three trustees of the inaugural AECOM Education Trust, which focuses on female tertiary students who are exceptional academic achievers, as well as role models and leaders, studying in fields related to AECOM’s broad scope of services and expertise.

“I am excited because the three candidates we have selected for 2017 are incredible women who have managed to forge their own paths, and hence it is our privilege to make their lives a little easier for them.” Maharaj herself recounts how it has not always been easy to achieve recognition in various male-dominated industries, from legal to financial and now consulting engineering.

As an example, Maharaj highlights how AECOM’s Vice President, Enterprise Strategic Marketing and Communications Director recently handpicked her to present on the global AECOM marketing strategy at a company conference in Madrid. “Life is about taking yourself out of your comfort zone, and being committed to succeed in all that you do.  I have never been afraid of hard work, or to stand up to a challenge.”

Meanwhile, Maharaj also strongly advocates that women empowerment must be actioned from a grassroots level. “It is the responsibility of every parent and teacher to educate, inform and shape the minds of our children to ensure that closing the gender gap on every level, including in the workplace, becomes generational advancement.”

For example, Maharaj has developed from an introverted youngster into a confident speaker. Before the age of 30 she was excited to achieve her dream of becoming a published author when she wrote a fiction story entitled Stand by Me. She enjoys shaping young minds, and loved addressing Grade 12 pupils at her children’s high school for several years on how to cope with their myriad challenges and become successful and well-balanced adults.

“Grade 12 is one of the most difficult years for learners with regard to academic and peer pressure, as well as being confronted with the reality of what is going to happen beyond school. These talks created the ideal opportunity to motivate and inspire future leaders. At the end of these sessions, many learners waited in line to thank me for changing their outlook on life,” Maharaj reveals.

She believes this is due to her and her husband having shepherded three children successfully through the trials and tribulations of Grade 12. “Every occasion that makes you uncomfortable has to be seen as an opportunity to challenge your fears at every step of an individual’s journey,” she concludes.

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