Qualified electrical engineer and business analyst Kamentha Pillay believes every young girl has the ability to enter any field of her choice, even a male-dominated one.
An advocate for greater female representation in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM), Kamentha wants parents to see the opportunities STEM careers offer and encourage their daughters to pursue fields in maths and science.
‘We need to create confidence amongst our girls, help them to realise that their dreams are valid, to be brave enough to grab opportunities that come their way.’
A Mrs SA finalist, wife and mother of two, Kamentha tells us why she chose to follow a profession that so many still view as a male career.
“Career choices became serious in Grade 10 when I started attending career expos. There was a lot of awareness in the early 2000’s around engineering and a greater intake of female candidates. In order to get a clearer understanding of engineering, I shadowed a technician at a local production plant.”
During this visit a male supervisor indicated that he ‘didn’t feel this was a place for women’.
“The defining moment for me was an uncomfortable discussion with my guidance counsellor, who expressed concern as to whether I would be suited to a career in engineering as a woman. I’m not certain if I simply interpreted her question as doubt in my ability or if I had become tired of hearing so many people reminding me how difficult engineering would be and the overarching feeling that women did not belong.
“I took this as a personal challenge – to represent women in a male-dominated field seemed almost heroic then. Those two moments are the ones I hold onto, even now years later, when I’m still fighting the good fight to prove that there is a place for women in STEM.”
Entering Mrs South Africa
Becoming one of 25 finalists in the Mrs SA 2020 pageant was one of the most unexpected journeys she has embarked on, says Kamentha, and one that changed her in a most significant way.
“At the beginning of 2020 I wanted to focus more on spreading my STEM advocacy work to a larger audience. I came across a call for entry on my Instagram feed and, after realising I met all the entry requirements and that there was a very clear focus on women’s empowerment, which links directly to my advocacy work, I was intrigued to see whether this could be the platform to speak about STEM to a new audience.”
Kamentha considered what it would mean for others if someone like her were to progress in the competition. “It could show women, mothers and my own daughter that there is no ‘typical’ or ‘acceptable’ norm of what women should consider to be beautiful…or ‘certain areas’ that we would need to shy away from. Ironically, there are parallels to the stereotypes within pageants and in the STEM industry. As females entering male-dominated fields there are huge challenges over equal pay, the same opportunities, or even being taken seriously within our careers and the maternal penalty we experience when we choose to pursue families over our careers. It’s a topic we don’t give enough attention to in SA … and I’m here to do that. We need to stop limiting ourselves and learn to embrace all that we are – and to integrate our lives more so that we all gain more joy in our careers, from our children, and our passions.’
What STEM careers are becoming more popular?
“There’s a major shift in the industry towards towards Artificial Intelligence (AI), machine learning, robotics and data analysis. There’s also a larger movement towards techpreneurship and solving everyday challenges through simpler, small-scale inventions and the use of technology. The STEM industry as a whole will allow for anyone entering it to move between different aspects of the field and to then carry that learning across to any other industry. That for me is the beauty of the field.”
Kamentha moved away from the corporate space three years ago, and today combines her knowledge of electrical engineering and business analytics as a business management consultant helping other small businesses optimise their processes and become more strategic in their operations. She is also the founder of an online community – The STEM Moms Club – and the owner of The STEM Mom blog and recently created the STEM Collect Connect platform.
“For the past three years I focused on understanding and spreading awareness about the challenges and policies in STEM for women within these fields. This year I would like to take a problem-solving approach to create a better representation in STEM. I’m always open to opportunities that align with my purpose and advocacy, so I’m keen to see what 2021 holds in store.”
Kamentha offers the following advice to youngsters who are unsure of what they want to become, or what field they want to enter: “Spend time understanding yourself before picking a career. Understand what really gets you energised and think about what you would like to do. What lifestyle do you want for yourself? Consider whether there is a greater purpose you would like to fulfill, and be comfortable with the idea that the career you choose is not the only manner to pursue the causes you would like to affect. There is so much room now to be more than one job title. The more we allow ourselves to embrace our various abilities, we are able to integrate them into a career and reach that sweet spot where passion meets purpose – for me that would be the ultimate goal.’