Students excel in civil engineering sector

Tariromunashe (Tarie) Mufunde

Two women studying civil engineering at UCT say its good more women are joining a profession long seen as “men’s work”, but many old stereotypes still need slaying.

Tariromunashe (Tarie) Mufunde, of Mowbray, and Rhonda Hyde, of Rondebosch, were among the top five in the 2019 UCT civil engineering class and are now Master’s students.

Tarie grew up in Zimbabwe and says studying civil engineering made perfect sense, given her country’s problems with water and sanitation.

“We had to buy water for day-to-day activities, which was a huge expense for my family. And from that experience, I wanted to find ways to save water, recycle and use the water more consciously.”

For Rhonda, it was her love of architecture and maths that convinced her to do civil engineering.

“I chose to study civil engineering in high school when I was thinking about my career and my interests and where the two met. My mother had a huge influence as she would often buy architectural magazines, which I would read from a young age.

“When I began to research architecture, I came across civil engineering, and I made my decision.”

Tarie was thrilled to get into the top five after transferring to a programme that let her spread her degree over five years.

“It wasn’t an easy decision to make, and I received a lot of discrimination, even from people who were close to me. I worked hard, I put hours into my work, and it all paid off in the end.”

When Rhonda got the email telling her she had made it into the top-five, she thought it had been sent to her in error.

“Then a friend of mine, also in the top five, called to congratulate me, and it hit me that this was happening. After a very challenging year, where I lost a close family member, I was completely surprised and overjoyed at the outcome.”

After doing their vocational training, both students feel the sector needs to be more inclusive of women.

Rhonda says there were times on site when she felt unsafe, uncomfortable and directly excluded from important conversations by male employees.

“Doing vacation work (a requirement in undergrad) opened my eyes to the challenges for females. Site work is definitely still the largest issue for me because it really highlights how men still perceive women in professional spaces that have been traditionally ‘for men’.

“Other employees on site always assume you’re there for everything other than civil engineering, as a woman, and often don’t address or include you in conversations.”

Tarie says she also found herself fighting a lot of old stigmas in the field.

“Working on site is a challenge – some construction workers are still fixed in their perceptions of women engineers. Civil engineering has for a long time been identified as a programme and job for males. These are some of the barriers that still need to be broken, but it starts with us walking on site, owning the title and doing our job.”

The lockdown means Tarie and Rhonda can’t work in UCT’s laboratories. Tarie is doing research on refining fertiliser-producing urinals, and it’s mostly lab based.

“Part of my research requires urine collection from the bathrooms and as long as campus is empty this part of my research will be a challenge.”

Rhonda says lockdown is a headache for students hoping to complete experiments and lab work in time to finish their degree at the end of the year, and some of them haven’t got money to continue their studies next year.

Tarie says she has a particular interest in the environment and water sustainability.

“I plan to work and pursue my career in this path. I also plan on helping young people with career guidance and encouraging women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. I believe women in engineering in particular can definitely make a difference.”

Rhonda plans to work as a geotechnical engineer, in the direction of sustainability and waste recovery.

“This is important to me because of rapid population growth and the decline of natural resources. More of us need to find new alternative and environmentally responsible ways of living to ensure that we look after the planet and its people.”