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Celebrate excellence, regardless of gender - Ilana Koegelenberg on women in HVAC/R

Only very few women work in the HVAC/R business. Why does such a prospering and sustainable sector find it so hard to attract female talent? After having hosted Andrea Voigt, this time we speak to Ilana Koegelenberg, Editor for Cold Link Africa and the Refrigeration and AC Africa (RACA) Journal.


 How did you come to work in the HVAC/R sector? When you were a child, what did you dream of doing when you grew up?

Growing up, I never even considered a career in HVAC&R. In fact, I never even heard of the acronym until I had to complete an article brief on ‘The state of skills in HVAC&R’ during my job interview. I had to do a Google search to figure out what “HVAC&R” even stood for.I always knew I wanted to be a writer though. Well, except when (I was really small) I wanted to be an archaeologist and a million other things that changed weekly. I soon realised that journalism was probably the most practical career choice for still earning a living whilst writing.
Nearly seven years ago I applied for such a variety positions, one being a writer’s post at trade and technical publishing house, Interact Media Defined (IMD I thought it would be a great ‘temporary’ stepping stone in my career. …
I was thrown into the deep end from day one at IMD. They had hired me to work on Cold Link Africa and the Refrigeration and AC Africa (RACA) Journal, two very well established (and sizeable) trade publications serving the HVAC&R. I’ll never forget, I started on the Wednesday with my first deadline only days away. I had to write two project features and a 3 000-word feature on compressors. It really was a baptism of fire but I survived and slowly started finding my feet in the industry, despite all the resistance due to me being young and female. I was determined though and willing to do what it took.
I worked my way up to Assistant Editor and eventually Editor, truly making the magazine my own and completely emerging myself in the industry. What was supposed to be a ‘temporary’ job became my entire world. 
But I wouldn’t want it any other way.


What do you like most about this sector? What are you most passionate about in your work in HVAC/R?

I like that it’s such a tightknit sector, almost like a family.. It’s an incredibly hard working and dedicated industry; one that thrives on innovation and efficiency. So many times I find myself so incredibly proud to be part of this industry. Never more so than our recent FRIGAIR trade show. Watching everyone put in the work and pull it all together – it was amazing! 
I love meeting new people and hearing what they are busy with, what their worlds are like. I like going to site and seeing new projects. I love the variety – no two days are the same.
I have a few things I get quite passionate about – my ‘soap box rants’ as I call it in my editor’s columns. Skills and training in general is always at the top of my list. Especially in South Africa where we have an incredibly high unemployment rate coupled with a skills shortage. If the two can cancel each other out, not only will the industry benefit, but the country as a whole.
Then, the refrigerant phase outs/downs is also something I get very involved in. I sit on the policy making committee for this and have been involved since I started at this company. I find the potential of natural refrigerants very exciting and see a great opportunity to educate the market and help them make the necessary transitions.
Number one though, I’m passionate about networking and showing the rest of the world what is happening in the HVAC&R sector in South Africa and the rest of Africa. It’s giving a voice to a part of the world that is often forgotten, but that has no need to stand back in terms of what we can offer in cutting edge technology and world-class designs.  I’m here to make sure our story gets heard as well. 


Did you feel discriminated against as a young woman? Do you think that the situation has improved over time?

It was very difficult when I first started out. Being female in such an incredibly male dominated industry is not only intimidating, it can be scary. So many times I were told ‘what do you even know’, dismissed at first glance by some engineer or another. It was extremely tough at first to get any respect as a woman. Especially a 24-year old woman.
It has gotten much better over the years as my confidence improved and I got to know the industry and the subject matter better. It’s gotten to the point that I can hold my own in any technical conversation and never have to stand back for anyone.  Respect is a difficult thing when you’re young and female in the HVAC&R industry. It takes a very firm handshake and a certain resilience to withstand the doubt and the criticism you have to endure sometimes. But you are still treated differently as a woman. You have to prove yourself time and time again. You have to work so much harder. And still, they look surprised when you put on your hardhat and climb up the side of a building to the plantroom.
It’s not even just about the disrespect. I have left functions before when feeling threatened surrounded by a room full of drunk men, simply for being a woman. Nobody should have to deal with that in a professional environment.


Why do you think HVAC/R is a predominantly male business? What can be done to attract more women?

I was chatting to someone from the UK recently about this exact issue and I think in South Africa, this situation is a bit different. Overseas, the problem seems to be ‘attracting’ women to the industry. That is not our problem. Our female engineering uptake is actually quite large and we have a lot of female engineers graduating. The problem comes the moment they enter the workplace and decide to throw in the towel rather than put up with the constant disrespect. Most engineers last less than a year in the workplace according to industry statistics, changing over to something completely different…
I think it’s still predominantly male industry because it’s always been seen as a ‘man’s job’. Which of course is not true. But it’s very difficult to change this mind-set. Difficult but not impossible.
The only way to change this imbalance, is one story at a time. It’s to celebrate the women who have stuck it out and who are successfully building their career in HVAC&R. Show the world that it can be done. Create positive female role models that can inspire young potentials to enter the industry. Counter the false belief that it’s a ‘man’s world’ or ‘no place for a woman’.  In the same breath, don’t celebrate a good engineer simply for the fact that she’s a ‘female engineer’. She’s just an ‘engineer’. Celebrate her for doing good work as an engineer, or a contractor or a technician or any of the roles. Her gender should not come into play. The more we highlight the fact that someone is achieving AND is a woman, the more we are creating the divide between men and women ourselves.
Celebrate excellence, regardless of gender. But put in the effort to find the women in the background who have been achieving but pushed aside because of their gender… That’s the key


What advice would you give to a young woman who wants to start a career in this sector?

It’s hard to be a woman in this industry, but it’s not impossible. You just have to put in the work and persevere. It won’t be easy. But don’t play the victim. Rise up as many times as it take. Put in as many hours as necessary. Earn your respect one interaction in a time. But just go for it. It’s easy to say ‘it’s a man’s world’, but as long as we hold ourselves back and accept that as a reality, this could never change. The world is yours for the taking – don’t stand in your own way.
Don’t gender yourself. You are an editor or an engineer or a technician or a sales rep – you don’t need to be a ‘female’ first and a job title second. Your gender does not make you less or more than anyone else. Do your job well and the rest will follow.
The most important thing is to believe in yourself and to grow a thick skin. Know who you are and what you stand for and then just go for it. Build your network, find your allies and learn from as many people as you can. You will never stop learning. But you must be willing. Admit when you don’t know the answers, ask for help. But always get the job done in the end.
This is an incredible industry to serve and once they accept you, it is the most rewarding thing because you truly feel part of something great. It’s worth the hard work. Don’t give up. I’ve spent countless hours sitting in the parking lot crying, asking myself why I’m doing this, wanting to just run away and do something completely different. But now, today, I couldn’t imagine myself being part of any other industry.  Nothing worth doing is easy.



Related Posts


Do men still predominate in HVAC/R? Andreina Figuera’s experience in this field

A change in perception to trigger change - Andrea Voigt about women in the HVAC/R

Is HVAC/R something for the boys?



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Wow! this is really inspiring, my wife is a Refrigeration Mechanic in Zimbabwe and is about to throw in the towel. let me link her to this...
Posted on 8/28/18 10:22 AM.