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Sunday, February 5, 2023

Zimbabwe: Not in the “wrong industry”: a young woman metallurgist’s life is pumping

She commutes over 150 km a day and handles sexist abuse all the time. Yet this young woman metallurgist wears a smile on her face and is determined to break down barriers. It’s all worth it, says Mationesa Nemasisi, who is exactly where she wants to be.

By Tatenda Kanengoni / Bird Story Agency

When she was 17, Mationesa Nemasisi received a gift, one she now credits with getting her to where she is today. It was a copy of Time magazine. Featured amongst the TIME 100 was a woman, the new (at the time) CEO of Anglo American, Cynthia Carroll. At that moment, said Nemasisi, her dreams were validated.

“When I was a child, I actually wanted to become a mining engineer, process engineer, or metallurgist because I wanted to be exactly like my dad,” said the 31-year-old, who today is the production metallurgist at a major platinum mine. The problem was, there were no role models. Like her father, all the mining personnel seemed to be men.

But the gift from her father changed this.

Realising her dreams were possible, Nemasasi wasted no time in putting her dreams into motion and took up maths, physics, and chemistry classes in high school, after which she enrolled for a chemical engineering degree at Loughborough
University, in the UK.

At the end of her course in 2014, Nemasasi returned to Zimbabwe where she scored a graduate
traineeship with the largest platinum metal producer in the country.

“I did my graduate traineeship there in 2015, I finished in 2017, after which I was appointed a plant metallurgist; a role I hold to date,” Nemasasi said.

Nemasasi, then 24, was taken aback to discover that there were still very few women in the mining industry.

“I’m still the only process engineer in my section. For mining, there are no women at the top, the proportion is far less than other industries,” she says.

Nemasasi faced a backlash on the plant for being young and the only female on-site and was often told that she was in the “wrong industry.” She learned to hold her ground and be resilient from early on. In many African countries, the field of metallurgy is traditionally reserved for men. Society uses the physical nature of the work involved to discourage women from taking up positions in the industry.

In their research paper, When the Smith is a Woman: innovation, improvisation and ambiguity in the organization of African Iron metallurgy, Ezekia Mtetwa, Yananiso Chinovava Maposa, Munyaradzi Manyanga and Shadreck Chirikure purport that there has been little documentation of women working in iron-related fields in Africa, making the case for Mbuya (Grandma) Chirozvi an early ironsmith in the Masvingo area of Zimbabwe.

An overview of the mining industry as a whole in Zimbabwe reveals that there are fewer women than men at different levels of the value chain. An enquiry into the systematic barriers of women’s participation in Zimbabwe’s mining sector value chain by the Zimbabwe Gender Commission and OSISA found that women’s representation in sector boards ranges from 12.5 per cent to 37.5 per cent and leadership of the Ministry and Parliamentary Portfolio Committee responsible for mining was male at the time of the study.

Some of the barriers to entry in the sector include perpetuation of negative masculinities in the sector including issues of conflict with women’s societal roles and gender-based violence in mining areas. The study also found that women who take up mining do it on an occasional basis more than full-time compared to men.

Nemasasi knows this too well.

“There are some males that don’t appreciate it when you’re “in their space”, so for me to persevere and still be on the mining plant I think is an achievement in itself, to be able to overcome all the obstacles that I face in my career and breaking boundaries that hadn’t been broken before,” she added.

However, there has been some progress. There are growing cases of women’s success in mining as miners who own claims, tributes and participate in local economic activities, serving those involved in mining.

“The Zimbabwe School of Mines has been funding female students with some of them doing very well. The top three performers over the last five years were female” according to the Zimbabwe Gender Commission and OSISA study.

Nemasasi has still had to put in way more than her male counterparts, however. Balancing her home life (she is mother to a 13-month-old baby girl) and ensuring that she more than pulls her weight to fight the stereotyping in her current job makes it even more difficult to prepare to take on responsibilities as a senior production metallurgist. But she relishes the challenge.

“I leave my home in Harare at 6 am every day for an hour-long drive to Selous where the plant is situated and hit the road back home at 6 pm,” Nemasasi explained.

“As we’re talking right now, I’m actually pumping. I think every woman should have a solid support structure and my support structure is my mother and I’ve got really good help. You can never underestimate the power of a helper who gets how you want to raise your child.”

Nemasasi cites her greatest achievements as recently building her first home and taking ideas from conception to execution and exceeding expectations in the process, including “initiating a bankable feasibility study to increase milling capacity by 5 per cent, following a period of unfavourable ore feed particle size distribution.”

In a world where women mentors are still few, Nemasasi wants to be that for her daughter.

“I think what keeps me going is that when my child is now aware of who I am, I want her to look up to me. You can’t keep a good woman down!” she chuckled.

Nemasasi still looks to that 2008 copy of Times Magazine for inspiration.

“I still want to be a CEO one day. There’s a journal that I wrote when I was in high school. I cut Cynthia Caroll’s picture and wrote I want to be the CEO of a multinational one day… I still want to be that.”

Source: Bird Story Agency / Zimbabwe.

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