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Professor Marshall Sheldon, Chemical Engineer and Executive Dean of Engineering, the Built Environment and Technology (EBET) at Nelson Mandela University, is used to the surprise on people’s faces when they realise “Marshall” is a woman.


Even today, many South Africans consider engineering  a “male” field and Prof Sheldon has worked long and hard to disprove these clichés.

“When people communicate with me via email or other means and see my name, Marshall, they immediately assume I am a male,” she says in an interview ahead of National Women’s Day on Wednesday, 9 August.

“Initially I was under-estimated. I had to prove myself as a female engineer, and work twice as hard.

“I believe in my abilities, knowledge and skills. I have learned to make my point more succinct, to take up my place and my space, not to be intimidated. I don’t limit myself and I continuously challenge myself.”

That clear-sighted grit has served Prof Sheldon well: she became the first female Dean of Engineering and the Built Environment at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) and then, in October 2022, the first female full time Executive Dean of EBET at Nelson Mandela University in Gqeberha.

“I do want to acknowledge Prof Dalenca Pottas, the Deputy Dean of the faculty, who is also a woman and took on the role as acting Executive Dean prior to me taking up the position,” Prof Sheldon says, with a nod also to the faculty’s “excellent management team” which includes other female leaders.

With more than 24 years in higher education, the bright spark from Paarl in the Western Cape has risen through the academic ranks through focus, dedication and consistent hard work. 

“I matriculated with an A-aggregate from the Klein Nederburg Secondary School in Paarl and was number 83 nationally. Everyone thought with an ‘A’ I should study medicine but this was not a career I was interested in – I cannot stand the sight of blood!”

Engineering crystallised when she was in matric, on a funded scholar tour to mines in the north of South Africa.

“This solidified my initial choice to study Chemical Engineering,” she says.

However, despite top marks, registration with the University of Cape Town and Stellenbosch were out of reach, due to funding constraints.

“The alternative option at the time was Cape Technikon (now CPUT),” she says.

“As a young black female then, even with an ‘A’-aggregate, I struggled to get funding to study, but eventually got a bursary from the South African Institute of Race Relations.” 

Prof Sheldon worked full time in industry after graduating, doing hands-on shift work on plants and operations.

“I made a conscious decision to improve and further my qualifications to eventually obtain a doctoral qualification,” she recalls.

“Working full time, studying part time, and building a successful career is a challenge in any context. Setting goals for yourself and then intentionally working towards them is crucial.

“I completed my doctoral qualification part-time while working as a full-time academic and was faced with many challenges.”

This included having to switch supervisors three times, but after five disruptive years she finally made it.

“At some point it felt that I would never complete it but with the support of my amazing family, and my own dedication and commitment, I succeeded.”

And no one could be prouder than Prof Sheldon’s family: her husband, who like her is from a small town (in his case, Worcester), their son and much loved immediate family who are still in the Western Cape.

After all, she is the clan’s first academic “doctor” as well as their first female engineer.

“They are my home, my anchor, my true north.”

Getting her doctorate seems to have spurred Prof Sheldon on further: she is a National Research Foundation C2 rated researcher, serves on numerous boards, and has successfully graduated 14 master’s and four doctoral students.

Her research work has been presented at more than 60 conferences locally, nationally and internationally.

It includes studies on industrial wastewater treatment, vital in a country such as South Africa which faces ongoing water challenges.

Prof Sheldon is keenly aware of the need for sustainable approaches to water usage and has investigated industries that range from textiles, paper and pulp; potato-maize; polymer; softdrink; poultry, and local government.

She advocates further education: “To become a good leader and manager I would advise that anyone considers complementing their discipline qualifications with business or management qualifications.

“I have a doctorate in Chemical Engineering combined with a BTech in Business Administration. For me the combination of qualifications from the Engineering discipline, complemented by having knowledge from business, management, marketing and economics supports my current leadership role.”

She has advice for women entering a male dominated environment: “Acknowledge that you deserve to be there as much as anybody else. Don’t be scared to take up your space and speak your mind,” she says.

“Engineering is a field that continuously evolves: do not be content, strive for continuous learning and growth, and expand your knowledge and skills.

“Surround yourself with people who encourage you and have your best interest at heart. Attend events and engage with other professionals in the field in and outside of your organisation.

“Find a good mentor and then support and empower other women in the same way.

“Make time for yourself, your family and your friends.

“Your mindset and attitude play a crucial role in your success. Be resilient, resourceful and persevere no matter what.

“Your background only determines where you start, only you determine where you finish!” 

Contact information
Primarashni Gower
Director: Communication & Marketing
Tel: 0415043057