THE FUTURE IS FEMALE
Women in STEM careers are under-represented and face barriers in the industry. TIISETSO TLELIMA talks to industry professionals about the importance of advancing women in the sector.
Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers are crucial in preparing for the fourth industrial revolution and the innovation and technological transformation that is needed, yet women remain under-represented in this ﬁ eld. While women make up more than half of the world’s population, UNESCO’s 2019 Women in Science shows that less than 30 per cent of the world’s researchers are women. And, in South Africa, according to Skills Portal, only 13 per cent of tertiary institution graduates with qualiﬁ cations in STEM are women. A 2021 article, “Let’s Accelerate the Women in STEM Agenda Today”, authored by the World Bank’s sub-Saharan countries director, Marie Francoise Marie-Nelly, traces the problem in the representation of women in STEM back to high school. Marie-Nelly states that while girls’ secondary education enrolment is higher than boys in sub-Saharan countries, such as Botswana, Eswatini, Namibia, and South Africa, many drop out before they complete secondary education. She also notes that those who stay lack the required proﬁ ciencies in numeracy, science and digital skills needed to enrol or excel in STEM-related programmes in tertiary. In South Africa, only 50.3 per cent of girls, compared to 58.6 per cent of boys, achieved 30 per cent or higher in mathematics in the National Senior Certiﬁ cate Examination. BARRIERS AND HURDLES Conversely, nuclear scientist Senamile Masango argues that the hurdle to women’s advancement in STEM-related ﬁ elds begins at a young age and is rooted in gender norms, biases and stereotypes. This limits their options to explore opportunities in the sector as they transition from adolescence to adulthood. “Young girls are discouraged from THE FUTURE IS FEMALE studying science because society thinks tough things are for men,” explains Masango. She explains that socialisation coupled with the lack of representation of women scientists in literature and popular culture makes young girls think that it’s not a ﬁ eld for which they’re suited. “It’s mainly things we watch, hear and see that inﬂ uence us. Our kids watch TV 24/7 and don’t see women depicted as scientists.” Masango is writing a children’s book based on her life and the challenges she’s experienced on her journey as a scientist. She believes that one of the ways to combat entrenched perceptions and encourage more women to pursue STEM careers is for more women to be portrayed in literature, TV series and movies. And, she adds, women scientists must become more visible. “For example, only a few of us do interviews, so people think there are no female scientists, but we are there.” Women in STEM still face barriers to education and ﬁ nding jobs. Masango says that sometimes women who register for STEM careers either don’t complete their qualiﬁ cations or modify them because they have to choose between raising a family and building a career. Dr Tovhowani Ramulongo, a microbiologist and senior researcher at the CSIR, agrees that women ﬁ nd it diﬃ cult to juggle their work, academic life and family responsibilities. “To be more recognised in the STEM sector, you have to have a master’s and a PhD, meaning you have to study further. It becomes diﬃ cult for women: ﬁ nding a balance between family and academic life is quite challenging.” Fortunately, Dr Ramulongo, who has two children, had plenty of support from the CSIR to further her studies; not always
“Socialisation coupled with the lack of representation of women scientists in literature and popular culture makes young girls think that it’s not a field for which they’re suited.” – SENAMILE MASANGO
Women in STEM careers are under-represented and face barriers in the industry. TIISETSO TLELIMA talks to industry professionals about the importance of advancing women in the sector
the case for women in STEM. “So far, even though the environment is male-dominated, I don’t feel as though I have been discriminated against because I’m a female. As opportunities arise, I feel as though I am the same chance.” However, she admits there have been times when she’s had to overlook opportunities to prioritise her family. “I sometimes think if I climb the career ladder, I’m going to be busy and spread myself too thin, and then I won’t have that proper balance.” Often women in STEM encounter a myriad of problems in the workplace, such as diﬃ culties getting promoted, ﬁ nding training opportunities, or having to deal with vicious boardroom politics if they move up the ladder. “Many women give up as a result of mental issues; they choose themselves. You’ll hear some say they don’t want that position because of the politics.”
DID YOU KNOW?
Ironically, many core STEM disciplines used to be dominated by women. Before computers were invented, women performed many of the calculations to measure the size of the universe and determine rocket trajectories. Women were also instrumental in the history of computing and programmed the ENIAC computer in the 1940s. The first computer programmer was a female English mathematician, Ada Lovelace, who wrote an algorithm for a computing machine in the mid-1800s.
Source: The Biggest Barriers forWomen in STEM | BestColleges
GOVERNMENT NEEDS TO DO MORE
Although the government has a mandate to hire more women in the public sector, these women are rarely given support. “They just throw you into the sea, and you have to swim with the sharks,” says Masango. She believes that government needs to do more to develop and invest in women in STEM and ensure that there are structures and systems of support. Sometimes STEM graduates, and this is not just limited to women, can’t fi nd jobs and end up teaching for a living. “We don’t manufacture everything ourselves in South Africa; if we did it would solve unemployment issues,” explains Masango.
Louise Robinson, owner of IT marketing company CG Consulting, brings a different perspective to the women in STEM debate, stating that not everyone wants to be an architect or engineer. “Some girls want to be mothers and wives and then have a career, and then the balancing act just doesn’t work,” says Robinson.
“To be more recognised in the STEM sector, you have to have a master’s and a PhD, meaning you have to study further. It becomes difficult for women: finding a balance between family and academic life is quite challenging.”– DR TOVHOWANI RAMULONGO
Drawing on her experience from running Microsoft’s Women in IT campaign, she found that there’s an assumption that everyone wants to be a rocket scientist, but in reality, some of the girls didn’t want to. Robinson states that the lack of interest may be because math’s is difficult. “You have to be good at math’s, and less than 10 per cent of the world is good at maths,” she says. Robinson thinks that it’s easier for children whose parents are already doctors and architects to enter that field, whereas children from poorer backgrounds may have a difficult time convincing their parents to allow them to study STEM careers because they take too long to complete and the children often have to help pay the rent and bills. Robinson adds that many women are entering the IT space as graphic designers, coders, and app developers. In her view, the IT world is huge and needs to be broadened to include marketing and sales, and web design. “There are so many jobs in tech and women are doing them, everyone needs a tech background to be able to create an Instagram ad.” To improve and accelerate women’s participation in STEM careers, Masango proposes that the government enforces a 50 per cent quota in the industry and perhaps even has a policy that allows women to work from home so that they don’t have to choose between their families and having a career.“Giving women the same chances as men to pursue and succeed in STEM careers contributes to the reduction of the gender pay gap, increases the fi nancial security of women, ensures a talented and diverse STEM workforce, and eliminates biases in these fi elds and the goods and services they produce,” says Masango. Dr Ramulongo, on the other hand, believes that women need to be encouraged to be more confi dent and take up space instead of allowing men to take the lead. “Women make things ,happen. You can give us pieces of things and we’ll make something out of it. So having us women in the workplace makes the environment more functional.”