Standing out whilst fitting in: International Women’s Day 2021

Standing out whilst fitting in: International Women’s Day 2021

10 March 2021

During the week of International Women’s Day (8 March), Renette de Villiers reflects on life as a South African national working as a product design engineer for British business Performance Projects, based at MEPC Silverstone Park.

Happy childhood and then a bold step

“This past year we’ve all been struggling with a variety of challenges and setbacks, and, for the most part, I am happy to say that I have been one of the lucky ones. I still have a job, I can still pay rent, haven’t lost any friends or family to the virus and, arguably the most important factor: I don’t have any children to entertain or home school.

“This blog is just a short account of what it’s like to be a South African female in a male-dominated industry in the UK on a work visa. I admit that none of these identifiers are rare on their own, but perhaps they make me as unique as we all want to be, while still managing to find a way to fit in.

“I was born in South Africa in the early 90s and spent most of my life in Stellenbosch – a beautiful town surrounded by mountains and vineyards (if you are an avid wine drinker you may have heard of it). Until the age of about 14, I spent at least six months a year barefoot, running from one lamppost shadow to the next to avoid burning my feet on the asphalt when walking home from school. Summer holidays were spent by the coast, where there is a cool breeze and the smell and sound of the ocean surrounds you. I still spend as much time there as I can.

“When I was 22, I graduated from Stellenbosch University on a standard hot summer’s day in December with a BEng in Mechanical Engineering in hand, and was about to start the exciting journey to move to the UK for further studies.

“This in itself was a terrifying prospect (What if I’m not good enough? What if I don’t make any friends? What if the UK is nothing like all the episodes of Grand Designs that I’ve watched in my youth? What if I’m the only girl on the course)?

“I set off anyway…”

Tricky times but then a break

“It turns out the UK is mostly fantastic. I thoroughly enjoyed the MSc at Cranfield University, I made many great friends, and it doesn’t rain nearly as much as I was told it would. I then decided to spend a few more months in the UK while my student visa was still valid to look for jobs, and found that, as if securing a job after graduating isn’t difficult enough, needing a work visa adds so much difficulty.

“The work visa system has many intricacies and is difficult to explain without sitting down for a discussion over coffee, but in summary: if you’re from outside the EU, don’t have parents or grandparents who were born in the UK, are not married to a British citizen, earn less than £153,200 per year and don’t have £2 million to invest, you need to find a company willing to sponsor you.

“If the job is on the UK job shortage list, then this is made a bit easier, and luckily the job I was offered in the end was on the list. The company then has to have the ability to sponsor – and be willing – to take on the extra cost and labour of arranging a Tier 2 work visa. Not many companies are willing to take this task on; I was very fortunate to find helpful people who were, and I started my career in the automotive industry. Now, more than five years on, I am on the brink of having Indefinite Leave to Remain, which will give me a right to work and stay in the UK.”

The Imposter Syndrome
“Being a young woman in the engineering industry has mostly been a positive experience. There is an element of standing out in a crowd, and this perhaps makes me more memorable.

“There is, however, also the need to fit in; I feel I have to prove that I also deserve to be there and that I am there on my own merits and achievements (am I?), and that I am just as capable as any of my peers.

“The imposter syndrome is perhaps amplified even more by working at Performance Projects and being surrounded by people with far more experience – and who are unbelievably intelligent and good at what they do (and I promise I’m not just saying that because there is a good chance they will read this)!”

Excited about the future

“I am very happy with how lucky I have been in the opportunities that have come my way, and very excited about what the future holds.

“The homesickness will always be a feeling that lingers in the background, but, until I’ve settled and built a home for myself, I will always feel a little bit lost.

“For now, I hope to hold onto the things that make me unique and not lose my own authenticity, while also being able to feel like I am somewhere I belong.”