For tackling tough infrastructure projects with an eye toward social and economic change
As a kid, Innocentia Mahlangu would spend hours building elaborate model houses from cardboard boxes. Learning the fundamentals of electricity allowed her to elevate her DIY designs with lights. And when she came across a bag of cement one day, she wasted no time in upgrading her materials to build a sturdier home. “I realized my true passion was in creating things,” she says.
Mahlangu pursued her passion in earnest—first earning a degree in civil engineering, then working on feasibility studies for railway infrastructure projects, before stepping up as one of South Africa’s very few female construction managers to oversee a multimillion-rand railway project. More recently, she’s managed multidiscipline projects in mining, metals and infrastructure sectors at Hatch.
In a field dominated by men, she’s had few women role models to emulate. But her quick ascent is fueled, in part, by having a clear understanding of her impact: If Mahlangu does her job well, she’ll deliver tangible improvements for local residents—and provide career inspiration for future women leaders. To that end, last year, she founded SHEngineers, a nonprofit virtual mentor network for women in engineering.
In a one-on-one chat, she talks imposter syndrome, the rise of “social” project managers and the art of intentional communications:
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced as a woman in a male-dominated field?
The construction industry struggles to attract and retain women, and I’m hoping to be the change I wish to see. I am fortunate being part of an organization that’s dedicated to growing young engineers and understands diversity and inclusion. I had a mentor from the first day I started working, and that has made an incredible difference. A lot of women don’t find themselves in a similar position.
The challenges I’ve had to overcome are more internal struggles: dealing with imposter syndrome, wondering if my voice is big enough or loud enough or if I’m being assertive enough. Having a network of other women to talk with has a real impact. I progressed quickly in my career, and I want to impart some knowledge—especially to women engineers—to give them a playbook for how they can achieve similar feats.
How do you see young project leaders evolving the role of engineering?
I’m inspired to be a part of a generation of social engineers and social project managers—conscious of the fact that engineering and infrastructure projects can be a vehicle to address economic and social change.
In a lot of the areas that we work in, it’s quite remote, and it’s actually disheartening to see the conditions that people live under. So when planning for a project, you need to factor in: What can I reasonably give back? What skills can I use within the local community and incorporate in the project? By doing that, you’re actually building capacity of people in the project location. And when you’ve gone, they still have that. They don’t lose those skills. As project professionals, we all need to do a better job in being social project managers, in addition to being a technical project manager.
How has the pandemic reshaped how you manage projects?
Communication is a bigger challenge now. As a leader, you need to be more intentional about engaging people, inviting people to participate in meetings. The moment you communicate, it makes the process a lot easier.