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Beating science’s gender frontier

At Sasol, a group of women in the science arena, led by MARLIZE MEYER played a key role in securing a place in the finals for the Franz Edelman award, which led to Sasol winning the INFORMS prize.

The private sector in South Africa still has a long way to go with regard to gender equality and there are still many barriers that prevent women from ‚getting ahead’ in business. Women currently hold around 37.6% of jobs in management at all levels including the teaching and nursing professions.

The women in the team are Marlize Meyer, who leads stochastic Operations modelling, Michele Fisher who worked in many different countries and who brought the right vocabulary to explain our work on an international forum, Anette van der Merwe who is responsible for modelling the Secunda Refinery, Lorraine van Deventer, Gas Factory modeler who now relocated to Australia, Cecile Wykes, who contracts work to the team in the blending and distribution area and Esmi Dreyer, who recently started at the group as young Operations Researcher and who has already contributed valuable improvements to the Gas Factory model. These women all hold Honours or Masters degrees in sciences. They majored in chemistry, mathematics, process engineering and operations research or a mix of these.

Meyer says that being part of a group where just more than half are women is amazing. Normally one would expect serious competition in such a group however at Sasol, promotions are based on hard work, dedication, passion and each employee is measured with the same criteria. Establishing a new technology division at Sasol posed many challenges but none of which included prejudice or inequality.

‚Having been with the company for the last 20 years, I firmly believe that success is earned through perseverance and team work coupled with the right qualifications and a positive attitude. If you are serious enough, do what you believe in and stick to it, you will succeed. Never be afraid to fail, but rather, be willing to pick yourself up and try again,‚ says Meyer.

This work was also submitted as part of the package for the INFORMS prize and as part of Value Chain Optimisation in Sasol Technology, these woman are also now being recognised by INFORMS ‚for effective integration of operations research/ management sciences (OR/MS) in an organization’, a testimony to the strength of the integrated team.

Meyer, holding a Masters degree in Operations Research explains that operations research in Sasol mostly use computer-based statistical models to help business estimate the impact of options and enable better decisions. Stochastic operations modelling can be compared to the development of a training simulator but instead of piloting an airplane over land and sea, you control the flow of liquids and gas through Sasol plants.

The journey

Early in her career, Meyer, a Sasol bursary holder, joined the R&D Decision Support team, doing programming and supply chain modelling, where she discovered her passion for simulation. ‚The simulation projects yielded reliable results and I realised that simulation could potentially be used in operations and processes and make a difference in many projects,‚ says Meyer.

As R&D was very technology focussed and less ‚operations’ focussed, the group could not expand and once the opportunity arose to join Sasol Technology, the group moved over.

Meyer looked after supply chain simulation modelling and started the first stochastic operations model for Synfuels in petrol blending and distribution. This single flame yielded positive results and was fanned to a fire by each modeller who developed and nurtured a model used at Sasol’s Secunda plant (Synfuels). Amazingly, many of the women in the team played a major role in this initial process. As a new technique, not historically part of engineering, it required some convincing to prove the value of this modelling. It was an uphill battle, but a battle that yielded excellent returns. As the team grew and new models were developed and used effectively, the work became more accepted and started to be seen as a technique with a future. To sustain this work over ten years required a team of modellers and good management.

‚Stochastic modelling is used in most of the capital projects in Synfuels and Sasol attributed around R2 billion value add to these models,‚ says Meyer.

Meyer says, ‚Success needs team work and many engineers and scientists in the businesses carried the torch on our behalf over the years.‚ Meyer also believes that one needs to care about the people around you to be truly successful, if people know that you trust them, support them and will help them to open closed doors, they are left free to soar and achieve their maximum potential.

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