THE days when the woman’s place in life was in the kitchen are gone forever as women have taken up the challenge to climb up the corporate ladder to claim their place in male dominated spheres.

This is what Shirley Garas (35) has achieved at NamPower where she has become only the second woman in the power utility’s 28-year history to reach Level 6 – the highest authority a high voltage electrician can attain to work on the national power grid.

The pioneer was Elizabeth Amutenya who was the first woman to achieve the highest level in high voltage operating (level 6) at NamPower.
Garas, the second eldest of 5 siblings is based at NamPower’s Otjiwarongo district under the section of Network Operations in the Transmission department.

“I was born in Otjiwarongo, but I grew up in Grootfontein where I did my primary and secondary education. After Matric I joined the NamPower Vocational Training Centre in Windhoek in 2009 where I did a three-year apprenticeship in the electrical trade attaining N3 qualification,” she said.

Upon completion of her apprenticeship, she underwent short stints at DC Systems as a DC electrician and at Power System Construction as an electrician responsible for cabling and wiring.

She then joined Network Operations in 2013 as an HV electrician and transferred to Otjiwarongo.
How did she get there? It runs in the family, they say.
She says having family members in the electrical field motivated her to apply for the bursary the company had advertised.

“Initially I had been awarded a scholarship for veterinary training in Malaysia but sacrificed it when NamPower accepted me because we were on a full bursary, and we were also paid a monthly allowance during training as opposed to the Malaysian offer where I still had to raise the airfares and money for my upkeep. I do not regret deciding to stay at home,” she says.

Garas says she likes challenges and throwing herself into new things so joining NamPower was a worthy challenge to the athletic electrician who likes the outdoors.

“After theoretical training on the Operating Rules for High Voltage you go out in the field to gain practical experience, and then you request for an assessment which is conducted by a panel of experts. If they find you competent, you then get authorized on various levels ranging from 1 – 6,” she said.

“The process requires that you undergo theoretical assessment first which you must pass with 80%.”
Garas, a legal guardian to two daughters, says she has a supportive partner who takes diligent care of the kids, so the parenting part is mostly off her plate.

“The “me time” is tricky to schedule because work requires that we be on stand-by and be called out any time (even when on leave). This is now my 10th year at NamPower within the NetOps section and I have adapted well, and personal time is really limited,” she said.

Talking about her new level of competence she said the highest voltage that can be transmitted on the NamPower national grid is 400 kilovolts (400 000 volts) and by attaining Level 6 she acquired the authority to work on any part on the transmission network throughout the country, handling the highest voltage on our national grid.

She stressed that at Level 1, which is the lowest, you are authorized to only carry out safety inspections at substations and so responsibilities increase as per levels.

Garas said NamPower has three safety priorities: Safety of the person where one cannot work when their life is in danger. Safety of equipment and Continuity of supply.

“When the safety of personnel is endangered, then we cannot risk restoring power during a breakdown.”

Garas said the biggest challenge is working with men who do not accept working under the authority of a woman however the company’s policy and code of conduct clearly outlines against such ethics and as employee’s we must adhere to such policies.

“I always say respect my position more than me as an individual. However, most are elderly and supportive tates who are willing to teach the realities of field work as they have been doing it for a long time. Some male colleagues are intrigued that a woman can do the work men do, she added.

To gain their confidence she had to respect them in as much as they respected her, and she worked hard to show she could also do the task at hand.

“You also must be a team player so that when they grab a spade you also grab one. When they are demotivated, you lead the way by doing the work and they will follow suit. Besides, they are your subordinates, and you must lead by example.

When asked about her future, Shirley said she is optimistic about her career path and her future at NamPower. She sees herself heading a district or being an area manager in the near future.

She says she owes her success to NamPower’s affirmative action policies and the influx of female electricians from the Vocational Training Centre, there are now a larger number of female High Voltage electricians working in different regions, and she advises them:

“Despite the challenges in our field, always know that it is possible to excel in our career – I have proven that it is possible. Work hard, educate yourselves and always remember SAFETY is the number one rule when working with electricity.”

Congratulations Shirley, the sky is the limit.