Matenda, Sophia (2017). 'Engineering education for social change: experiences of women students in technical and vocational education and training' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.



Contact Email:

Institutional Affiliation: University of the Free State, South Africa. Centre for Research in Higher Education and Development.

Category: Young scholar meets senior scholar session

Title: Engineering education for social change: experiences of women students in technical and vocational education and training

Key words: women students, social change, engineering education.


This paper draws from my PhD thesis titled: The role of technical and vocational education and training in women’s empowerment: a capabilities perspective.

The Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) in South Africa has conceptualised Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) as transformative and developmental in addressing unemployment, inequality and poverty (DHET, 2012). Priority has been placed on increasing access to this form of post-school education and more women are being enrolled in the traditionally predominantly male fields such as engineering studies. Not only was vocational education and training racially segregating during apartheid, it was divided on gender lines as well (McGrath, 2004). Until the end of apartheid in South Africa, there was limited technical skills training for women. In an effort to address this disparity, the government of South Africa has opened up post school education to everyone including women. However, the main reason behind extending education to previously disadvantaged groups such as women has mainly been informed by human capital theory. The conception of human capital theory that women’s technical education should be fostered because it will contribute to employment creation and economic growth is put under scrutiny in this paper. Sen (1999) argues that educated women are likely to raise healthier and fewer children, encourage children to go to school and generally contribute to poverty reduction and development. To foster these broader outcomes, engineering education needs to be multi-dimensional, be instrumentally, intrinsically and socially useful (Walker, 2015).

Literature has been generated on the TVET system in South Africa but there is limited interrogation of the experiences of women students as they participate in TVET. Studies conducted have mainly been quantitative for policy making and governance. In addition, a lot of focus has been on engineering education in higher education. TVET serves a significant portion of post school population in the country. By using the capability approach (CA) my study seeks to understand the experiences of women students in and through TVET. It contributes to literature on the value of technical education in women’s lives. The study analyses whether engineering education is able to enhance the opportunities and freedoms that women students have reason to value. The paper is guided by the following main research questions; (1) What are the experiences of women students studying engineering at a TVET college?  (2) What valued capabilities are being developed through TVET? It is my argument that social change for women cannot be achieved as long as human capital theory is the main underpinning of TVET policies. From a CA perspective therefore, agency, freedoms, and women’s wellbeing are central to achievement of social change.

The study is a qualitative feminist case study informed by Standpoint Theory. Information has been gathered through in-depth interviews with female students studying engineering at a TVET college. By adopting a qualitative methodology and being able to understand the issues to do with culture and attitudes, this study presents a new focus in research on TVET. It is my hope that this will contribute to the development of a more effective and valued TVET system, with the needs of young women at heart.

From the preliminary findings, women students have indicated that they have benefited from TVET. The education has opened opportunities for them such as for further studies and employment as apprentices or trainee artisans. In addition, women students felt they gained an opportunity to develop problem solving skills, build self-esteem and ultimately, hope for a better future. Findings so far suggest that there is limited change in the social aspects of the students’ lives.  Some students felt that they should have gained more from TVET for it to bring social change and be more socially useful. Respondents felt that courses such as computers and communication skills would have helped in building a socially empowered woman. These courses however, are not part of the engineering training. This paper reflects on the experiences of women students as well as their valued capabilities in order to make a case for a capabilities informed TVET education.


scroll to top