SKA Global Headquarters, 23 June 2019 – What does an engineer look like? For many women through the decades the answer may have been: not like me. Thankfully for Team SKA and countless other cutting-edge projects, trailblazers have paved the way for a new generation of women in engineering. They are a vital part of our diverse engineering workforce and what makes a project like SKA possible!
Among them is SKA System Engineer Shagita Gounden from South Africa, who has been part of the team working to design the Science Data Processor – the SKA’s supercomputing “brain”. To mark International Day of Women in Engineering 2019, we spoke to Shagita about her route into engineering, why we need more women in the field, and the importance of building a sense of community among colleagues at SKA Global Headquarters.
What were you interested in as a youngster – when you look back were there already the makings of an engineer?
I gravitated towards science fiction as a child and was crazy obsessed with Star Wars! I think my interest in science and space made it clear I was going to go into something science-related. Thinking back, I sometimes took my toys apart to try and find out how things work, but not in a serious engineering way, I was just inquisitive. Personality wise I was also a bit of a loner, and preferred to be on my own and potter around. Growing up I always wanted my own lab to do things in. My father was also a big influence in my eventual career choice – he bought me interesting toys like race cars, robots, building kits and encouraged my interests and curiosity.
“Engineering is about problem solving, and the way you reason and employ your technical skill to solving that problem”
When did you start becoming aware of engineering as a possible career?
To be honest I didn’t really know anything about engineering until late in high school. I was always sure I would choose maths, science and computer science – which I took after school as an extra class, as it wasn’t part of the curriculum – because they were my favourite subjects, but I didn’t really know what I would do with them, I just chose what I found interesting. In fact those weren’t the subjects that came easiest to me, I was better at English and literature but I found the challenge of maths and science really rewarding.
So with interests across the STEM fields, what was it that made engineering stand out for you?
Computer Engineering, specifically, was explained to me as a discipline that looked at technology and computers holistically, focusing on both hardware and software aspects. I’ve really come to understand engineering as being about problem solving, and the way you reason and employ your technical skill to solving that problem. They’re usually problems that impact things on a larger scale, and the idea of doing something that makes a larger contribution really appealed to me. I remember speaking to someone who had dropped out of engineering and “warned” me about how hard it was – but to me that just sounded like a great challenge!
Are you the first engineer in your family?
Yes, I come from a family of mostly lawyers, teachers and accountants, so engineering also seemed quite exotic to me! Actually my family wanted me to do medicine, and engineering wasn’t really a typical choice at the time. But my parents always gave me free rein to make decisions, and ultimately it’s about what interests and excites you, even if it’s difficult and goes against the grain of what’s expected of you.
Engineering is more than a career to me. Growing up in Apartheid South Africa, education was the only way to uplift and empower one’s self. My parents inculcated a deep respect and drive for education and personal empowerment. They invested heavily and sacrificed a great deal to ensure that I received a good education and felt that there was no limit to what I could achieve. Although I love engineering and the discipline itself, it was also the conduit to my independence and personal empowerment.
“Engineering has allowed me to be independent and really mobile in terms of where I work, which was very important to me.”
Let’s talk about your route to the SKA, what did you do before you joined us?
Well I studied Computer Engineering at the University of Pretoria, which at the time was the only university in South Africa that taught it, as weird as that seems now! I had a bursary from Eskom, South Africa’s energy distributor, and worked with them for three years while also doing a postgraduate honours course part-time.
From there I worked for Siemens, and at the CSIR (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research) in defence research on electronic warfare. I joined the SKA based with the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) in South Africa five years ago as part of the Science Data Processor team, and moved to the headquarters in the UK in 2018. Engineering has allowed me to be independent and really mobile in terms of where I work, which was very important to me.
So now you’re a System Engineer within Team SKA, what exactly does that mean as a role?
System Engineering is a structured approach to problem solving. You take a problem and break it down into individual, doable chunks, then bring it all together at the end and it gets solved – that’s how the SKA is being built. I love that systems engineering can be applied to any discipline and it allows you to be creative in your design and your thinking even within a framework. It’s mostly about reducing risk and while it started out in a military environment it’s now used in telecommunications, aviation and here at the SKA.
If you think about the aim of the SKA – to build the world’s largest radio telescope – it’s incredibly daunting! But it becomes a lot more realisable if you think about it as little components that all contribute to this one thing, and your task is just to focus on one component at a time, or one function of one component at a time. That’s how we’re able to do it.
“It’s important for girls to see women as engineers, so a woman in this field isn’t considered an oddity – it’s just normal”
What do you find most exciting about your role as an engineer here?
I like the collaborative spirit of this project, and the diversity of the teams. It’s a very rich experience when you have differing approaches, ideas and philosophies. At the same time it’s really interesting to me how similar engineers are across cultures, regardless of their ages, genders, or backgrounds. That’s partly a result of training but also just the nature of human beings collaborating together, which really transcends any individual differences.
We’re speaking on International Day of Women in Engineering – why do you think it’s important to have more women working in this field?
It goes back to diversity. Women and men think differently, and that’s not to say one is superior to the other, but whenever you have different voices and attitudes you will come up with better, richer ideas. If everyone in the room is socially conditioned to think in a certain way, you’ll have hive ideas that are all very similar. More women in engineering promotes diversity and ultimately better solutions.
That’s why we need to address the gender disparity that still exists in engineering, and part of that is showing girls that it’s a real option for them. It’s important for them to see women as engineers, so a woman in this field isn’t considered an oddity, and we don’t even ask the question “what is it like to be a woman in engineering?” – it’s just normal.
Has that gender disparity been apparent throughout your career?
When I was studying all our lecturers, faculty and most of our classmates were men – there were about 60 men to five women in the class, so among my few female classmates there was definitely an underlying sense of support for each other. That said, I was also really well supported by my male classmates and our lecturers, and that made a big difference. It’s not just about women lifting each other up, it’s about men uplifting women too. Men need to be allies in the battle for gender equality otherwise it doesn’t work.
Credit to my parents, I was raised with no sense of limitations based on gender or anything else. But I’ve done a lot of outreach since graduating and even in a really good girls’ school in South Africa I still got the question: “Is engineering something women really do?” So we still have work to do.
“In order to master a subject you have to enjoy it. It’s not about having some innate gift – maths and science weren’t my strongest subjects but that didn’t stop me.”
How do you see the gender balance in Team SKA?
In my career so far I’ve often been the only woman on a team, but here at the SKA it’s better, because there’s the mix of science and engineering and it’s a global project so it casts a wider net. I’ve had the opportunity to work with women a lot more on this project than on any other.
Thinking about the next generation of budding engineers, particularly youngsters from under-represented groups, what advice would you give them?
If it’s something that you really want to do, if it excites you and you’re passionate about it, don’t let anything get in your way. Always remind yourself of why you’re there, the fact that you love what you do. I think the only prerequisite it that you enjoy it because in order to master a subject you have to enjoy it. It’s not about having some innate gift – maths and science weren’t my strongest subjects but that didn’t stop me.
Also, when you have to make a decision about the career you’re choosing at 16 or 17, you’re really lucky if you choose the right thing for yourself at that point. As you get older you realise it’s not a big deal if you decide to change further down the line.
Speaking of changes – you’re now studying as well, is that right?
Yes I’m studying my executive MBA part-time at University of Cambridge. I’ve always wanted to do it because it’s a really good complement to an engineering background. It helps you to close the loop; you’ve got the technical expertise to design and develop, but then the business acumen to think about how it gets marketed and distributed, and fundamental life skills like how you negotiate, which I’ve never been able to do! I find that it’s really helping me to broaden my perspective in a different way than engineering.
Somehow you’ve also found time to teach yoga classes for the staff here at SKA HQ – why was that important to you?
I started teaching yoga at SARAO, and it’s great because it builds a community within the office, a group of people with a shared interest. Yoga is a great anti-stresser so it’s ideal in a workplace. In the middle of your day you’re able to just give yourself time and dedicate it to your own health and wellness.
I don’t charge for it because I feel like it’s my contribution to my workplace which isn’t my actual job. We all spend the better part of our day with the people we work with, so we need to feel like we’re not just clocking in, doing our jobs and leaving. It’s a place where you’re actively engaged and contributing to the lives of the people around you – it’s a community. It’s our community at the SKA.
Hear more from the women in engineering who are helping to make the SKA a reality here: Celebrating International Women in Engineering Day.
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