The Protea Network: helping businesswomen blossom!

South Africa’s steel sector is forging an online business women’s network, the Protea Network, where women working in the predominantly male-dominated steel and other market sectors can connect, build relationships and support one another’s development.

The Protea Network was launched by specialist large steel equipment fabrication company Betterect’s Managing Director Nicolette Skjoldhammer in April this year, to provide women in industry with the opportunity to connect and mentor each other.

“I started the Network after I was challenged to establish it by my colleagues in the steel sector. These women are all dealing with similar career challenges individually, and were looking for a common source of collective connection and support,” Skjoldhammer says.

The Protea Network is also endorsed by the South African Institute of Steel Construction (SAISC), of which Skjoldhammer is currently the Chairperson.

“The Network will facilitate conversations among women who feel isolated in male-dominated industrial sectors and help them to build relationships with each other.

In this country, women tend not to have the ‘boys’ club’ bonding element of sport – which cuts across such potentially divisive factors as cultural or financial considerations – and brings men with similar sporting interests together. So businesswomen need a mechanism, such as the Network, for facilitating the same sort of bonding,” she remarks.

The Network will also give its members with an opportunity to provide and receive mentorship – which will lead to the advancement of women in the steel, industrial and other sectors,” Skjoldhammer advises.

She goes on to explain another reason that it is important for women to build connections with each other, is the perception that their skills are inferior to those of their male counterparts.

“This perception unfortunately really works against women, as it creates remuneration disparities and limits the career opportunities available to them. Furthermore, it sees them leaving the male-dominated sectors when they hit the so-called ‘glass ceiling’, shrinking the pool of talented women who could develop and progress. The Protea Network will therefore be a constructive movement, which assists talented women to grow and assume their rightful positions of leadership and authority within their respective sectors.”

Skjoldhammer adds that while some women may feel discouraged about their career prospects in the current economy – which has undoubtedly been very adversely impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic and national lockdown – there are always opportunities for growth, even in a shrinking economic environment.

“The key is to find the growth points in the economy and to connect with them – this is why the Network is so crucial and so beneficial. The steel sector was, for example, already under severe economic pressure before the Covid-19 crisis took hold: however, there are still several determined and innovative companies in this market which are turning the challenges into successes.”

Skjoldhammer also envisions that the Network will embolden women to ‘speak up and step up’ – and to increasingly make their mark across industry – although she also cautions against an overly self-centered approach.

“Sometimes, very sadly, women react to the feeling of being isolated or unsupported in business by regarding their female colleagues as threats, feeling that the only way to get ahead is to ‘stand on’ other women on their way up the corporate ladder. If they could rather join hands with other women, they will gain the confidence to express their opinions, show leadership and make their own distinctive contributions, in a far more constructive and mutually beneficial manner. This will go a long way to establish a more equitable balance throughout business,” she adds.

The Protea Network is therefore calling on all women in the steel and other industrial and business sectors to join, by signing up at The Network is also actively looking for senior and knowledgeable women in industry and other business sectors to join and register as a ‘Protea’ – the forum’s designation for women with management or senior-level experience.

“Just as the famous saying goes that ‘no man is an island,’ no single woman has all the answers,” she quips. “Therefore, we encourage women at all levels to join the Network and add to the wealth of conversation and diversity within the forum.”

Skjoldhammer says that the objective of the Network for this year is initially to encourage and facilitate online forum membership, where members can engage on a daily basis. The next step in August will be to host a meaningful event, where women can further connect, engage and network.

“We envision that women will also frequently visit the online forum to interact with mentors and post questions on an ongoing basis. We want our members to regard the Network forum as a space in which they can enrich themselves and to grow in their careers and lives – and to encourage others to do so too,” she says.

“The long-term strategic intent of the Protea Network is to retain and develop women in industry, to grow the pool of opportunity and possibility for all South African businesswomen, and to nurture future female business talent,” Skjoldhammer concludes.