There is little doubt that the industrial gas industry has long been the domain of men, both in production and management. Women, traditionally, tended to be in support roles only, such as administration and marketing.

The last decade, however, has seen a significant organisational shift as perceptions about gender-specific roles in business become increasingly irrelevant.

In Air Products South Africa, a leading manufacturer and supplier of industrial gases, gas products and chemicals to industry, there is consensus among senior female managers that perceptions in the industry are indeed changing.

“In the past five to ten years there have definitely been changes within the industry with regards to the role of women. There is a marked increase in the number of women employed in more technical roles, such as laboratory technicians, analysts and engineers,” says Arthi Govender, Specialty Gas Sales Manager for Air Products’ Packaged Gas division.

“This has been driven by a number of factors, including societal changes, education, legislative changes, and women becoming increasingly assertive in the workplace.”

Responsible for managing the sales of specialty gases, including food, beverage and medical gases nationally, Govender maintains that hard work, self-confidence and technical ability were keys to her success. She admits, however, that the early years were tough and it was clear that she had to prove herself.

“It was very hard work. I would say that as women in this industry we had to work harder to get where we wanted to go. It is only through establishing technical credibility and building good working relationships with customers that you can build trust in this very male and technically-dominated industry.”

Ilse van Tonder, Air Products’ Industrial Relations Manager, agrees. “Industrial Relations is still very much a male-dominated area. Women climb the ladder because of the skills and approach they bring to the job - but we have to climb twice as hard.  There seems to be a perception that women are not tough or experienced enough in this industry. In fact it is the opposite: we bring with us resilience and a courageous spirit.”

Van Tonder, who previously also worked as a labour consultant in a variety of industries and contexts, sees her role as more of a mediator or facilitator than that of ‘wielding the axe’.

“When it comes to work performance, for example, I like to take a broader, more human view when mediating between employee and manager. Empathy is important, and recognising the person across the table as a fellow human being. What I try to do is to always ensure a positive outcome.”

When it comes to pin-pointing what it is that women can bring to the workplace, empathy is another point of consensus.

“In my opinion, women lead in an empathetic but fair manner, but with analytical ability and emphasis on excellence through team work. In this they can bring a significant contribution to productivity and employee engagement,” comments Mpume Nkonde, who heads up Learning and Development at Air Products South Africa.  “When allowed to be themselves and not forced to conform to certain stereotypes, women can add tremendous value to the business success,” she adds.

Nkonde’s role, which is both strategic and operational, involves various aspects of talent management and organisational development support. 

“Air Products prioritises the growth and development of women through our career development offerings and learning opportunities. For us, diversity is a business imperative. It is therefore important for Air Products to attract capable and suitably qualified employees from the labour market with no trace of gender discrimination,” she says.

 “Despite our efforts, however, we find that women still do tend to populate more of the non-technical and support roles. This is, in my view, indicative of the greater challenge faced by the whole country; which is to shatter the so-called ‘glass ceiling’ and with it, the myths around women occupying and thriving within technical roles.”

Sue Janse van Vuuren, EHS&Q (Environmental, Health, Safety and Quality) Manager at Air Products, supports the view that, while more women in the gas industry are being recruited into technical areas, including EHS&Q, engineering and cylinder facility supervision, mostly women’s roles remain non-technical, such as HR, Finance, Sales, Marketing and Administration. 

“This may be because certain jobs do require shift work, or are travel or labour-intensive and tend to be more suited to men. However, a woman can follow any career in this industry, as long as she is prepared to get a little dirty occasionally,” she quips.

For Arthi Govender, women bring a different perspective to the work place, which comes from having a more consultative approach.

“Women tend to be more empathetic in their engagement with others,” she asserts. “They are more supportive, so when it comes to teamwork, women are better at creating win/win scenarios. Perhaps it is because they are more reward-oriented and less ego-driven.  They are also driven by acknowledgement in all forms, not only by financial goals.”

Janse van Vuuren also agrees that women tend to be more empathetic when it comes to dealing with the workforce, and they can build better working relationships. For her, women   exhibit good attention to detail, and are able to successfully and constructively engage with people at all levels in the organisation.

“Fortunately, I had a lot of practical experience in the production environment and worked my way up, which made it easier for me in this role.  However when it comes to enforcement and monitoring of SHEQ legislation with both male and female team members, it can prove challenging.”

While there has been an improvement in the general approach to empowering women in industry, progress has been slow at senior management level in the industry, she says.

This scenario seems to mirror the situation in other industries globally. According to the 2013 Davies Report on Women on Boards, which investigated the barriers preventing women from reaching senior decision making roles in business, progress has been made since the original 2011 report, albeit slow. Women now account for 17.3% of FTSE 100 companies board directors, up from 12.5% in February 2011.

While progress has been slow for women entering the boardroom, the women of Air Products are upbeat about the future and believe strongly that career paths within the industry are waiting for anyone with the desire to achieve, regardless of gender.

“A lot of companies within this industry, including Air Products, actively search for skilled and qualified women who can make a significant contribution. Women just need to believe in their ability to get the job done exceptionally well,” Nkonde remarks.

Van Tonder agrees: “There is a lot of scope in the gas industry for women to advance, grow, develop, and break new ground. Gas is a stable industry - and women have a voice in it, which can only get louder.”

For Govender, as long as women are assertive, efficient and stand firm in who they are, the industrial world can be their oyster.

“I am positive that the role of women not only at Air Products, but in the industrial gas industry as a whole, is developing and changing for the better every day,” she concludes.