Women are fast becoming valuable resources in the engineering industry, however, there is a need for more women to pursue town planning as a career. Statistics provided by the South African Council for Professional Planners indicate that there is a total of 1403 registered planners in the industry and according to Urban and Rural Planning Manager at GIBB, Charlotte van der Merwe, Town Planning is an unusual vocation choice for women.

Town Planners can be described as Urban and Rural Planners, Community Planners, Development Planners, Land Use Management Planners, etc. and with the growth in the development of cities, so has the need of well-trained and experienced town planners, registered as Professional Planners in South Africa.

“Town Planning has been a gratifying career, and knowing that I am instrumental in making a difference in the quality of life for communities, fuels everything I do. Over the last couple of decades, the career has undergone many changes: from being inflexible and inaccessible for women, to being embraced by underprivileged communities and listened to when interpreting intricate economic and social development needs,” said Van der Merwe who has been in the industry for over 28 years.

Van der Merwe’s career started in 1988 as a Town Planner at the Polokwane Local Municipality in Limpopo. She was the first and only female Town Planner north of Pretoria and later became a mentor and role model for women in the field. “There were many challenges early on in my career that included a lower salary than her male counterparts, a lack of fringe benefits and maternity leave. I had to fight so much harder for equality. I didn’t have a car and I used to walk to work and if I needed to go on site visits, I would get a lift with building inspectors until my fight for a car allowance was realised,” commented Van der Merwe.

Today, the Town Planning Division at the Polokwane Local Municipality in Limpopo is led by a woman and the ratio of women Town Planners at this institution supersedes men.

She has been at GIBB, one of the leading black-owned consulting engineering firms in South Africa for the last two years. Her unit’s project profile includes both a local and continental focus, such as input into the Dar es SalaamPassenger Rail Network in Tanzania and locally, the Ekurhuleni Human Settlements’ project repacking, led by the Development Bank of Southern Africa.

“Working at GIBB is hugely rewarding. The firm strongly believes and champions women inclusiveness, and opportunities for staff exist, based on skill and not gender,” said van der Merwe who holds a degree in Town and Regional Planning from Pretoria University.

She believes that young women should consider Town Planning and encourages the career choice based on the growth in the field in terms of the need for structured and innovative planning for cities. “The last 10 years has seen evidence of women bringing their soft skills into a ruthless industry, whose imaginative inputs are heeded, creating a sense of place and pride for the inhabitants of even deprived communities, through understanding and design,” concluded Van der Merwe.