Visionary Woman Leader Inge Mulder paving the way for women

As the only female executive at SANRAL, Inge is passionate about empowering the women around her.

Having been in the engineering industry her entire career, Inge Mulder is used to being the only female in a very male-dominated industry. Even now, as the CFO of The South African National Roads Agency (SANRAL) she finds herself being the only woman at the executive table. “I have been fighting my whole life to show that I am just as good, if not better than, my male counterparts,” Inge says.

She explains that, over time, she has developed trusting relationships with her male colleagues and they have come to see and respect the value she adds to the organisation. “Initially when you step into a new board or a new environment, there is that trust deficit because of years of social conditioning and the way we were brought up. But once you build on those relationships and people start to understand what you are capable of, that discrimination falls away.”

As the only woman at executive level, Inge finds herself having to stand up for the needs of the women that work under her. “I understand that when you have small kids or you have a household that you are the sole provider for, that you have different needs. Time is an issue for many mothers and sometimes you can’t be available the entire day. I have to help them and make sure that we’re not neglecting them as women.”

While Inge’s finance department is 70 percent female, she says that, within the bigger SANRAL entity, there is still a lot of work to be done as most of the staff is male because of their engineering backgrounds.

However, she explains that SANRAL has turned its focus towards transforming those areas and has put in place bursaries and scholarships to attract more female students. These bursary recipients also have access to the SANRAL Wellness Programme, where registered professionals are available to assist with mental health challenges, financial planning and solutions to financial stress, time management, and their overall wellbeing. “This speaks to SANRAL’s holistic investment into the success and development of bursary recipients that goes beyond simply funding their studies.”

As part of SANRAL’s mentoring and successor programme, Inge mentors some of the people in her finance function, four of which are women, to get them to a point where they can also be at executive level. “Two elements I try to inculcate among the people I mentor is for them to embrace ambition and to be assertive,” she says.

She adds that, for men, ambition is considered necessary and a desirable character trait. Yet for women, it is seen as egotistic and undesirable. “This stereotype can limit professional women in how far they can go in their careers.”

To break this stereotype, Inge teaches her mentees that there is nothing wrong about being ambitious and competing with men in the workplace and in the boardroom is perfectly acceptable. She explains that, in the manner she does things and verbalises them, she is teaching the women around her to be assertive and to speak their minds.

“The most crucial would be that they must believe they are capable and that their views are important to me and others need to hear it,” she adds.

Empowerment starts at home
Inge says that empowering the women around her starts at home with her three daughters. “It starts with how I prepare my three girls for the world out there, making sure that I give them the confidence they need to enter the world of work.”

She adds that the first step in giving them that confidence is teaching them not to be dependent on anyone but themselves for their livelihoods. “Raising your daughter to become a wife or mother and not giving the opportunity to choose what they want to be is when you fail as a mother.”

Inge explains that her parents, who were both teachers, always taught her that the key to anyone’s success was hard work, and says it’s something she teaches the women around her as well. “In this country and many others, if you want to succeed, you have to work hard and with dedication.”

Immersing herself in the public sector
After completing her articles at Afrox, Inge joined Natref and in Sasolburg and was later transferred to Sasol Chemicals as a financial accountant and worked her way up to a management accountant. “I worked with the various plants and had to interact with both the sales people and the engineers. So instead of just focusing on the numbers, I was much more involved on the operations and business side.”

When she was contacted by SANRAL for an interview, she had the opportunity to directly integrate with the business again in an executive role. “At that stage the public sector was something new for me and I didn’t know the business that well.”

She quickly realised that where she had specific goals and objectives to work towards in the private sector, the public sector was a lot more complex. “In the public sector you have multiple bosses. You have the public which is the ultimate boss, a department that you report to, and the National Treasury that you are dependent on, as well as your own board of directors and investors. So there are multiple facets of people that you have to work with.”

Her most recent and biggest challenge as the CFO of SANRAL has been trying to set up a roads funding policy for South Africa. “We are part of the task team that the government has set up to create new policies around funding the country’s roads.”

However, she says that it still takes a lot of time and convincing people to understand that these new policies should be a priority. “We have to get to a point where the country, including the public, agrees to what the best way is to fund roads going forward. Because it’s not sufficient to rely on tax only.”

Inge says that she enjoyed immersing herself into the workings of the public sector. “There’s never a day that I do the same thing as yesterday and there’s always a new challenge, or multiple challenges, that come up.”

She explains that the environment and legislation change constantly, as well as the way you build and finance roads. “You have to adapt to the changes all the time. And I love that part, where you have to be part of the strategic decision-making.”

Getting down and dirty
Like her approach to work, Inge likes to get down and dirty in her free time. She enjoys mountain biking, tending to her garden and spending time outdoors.

She also enjoys travelling through Africa with her family – from Botswana to Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe – where they will pitch their tents, camp somewhere for the night, take their tents down the next morning and head to their next destination. “Those holidays were fantastic for me,” she says. “It’s quite rough, but that’s the best part.”