(Published - 11 February 2020}
It’s not always easy being a woman in science, and many women - and especially girls - feel discouraged from pursuing scientific careers. That’s why the University of the Western Cape (UWC) celebrates International Day of Women and Girls in Science - a chance to reflect on the challenges and achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths...and to consider ways to encourage and empower more women to become the leaders of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
“Women are community builders, and including women in STEM means including unique and diverse perspectives to innovation,” says Prof Mmaki Jantjies from UWC’s Department of Information Systems. “It means including lived experiences as well as different innovative ways to work towards human advancement. Encouraging an uptake of STEM across diverse communities of women thus contributes towards human innovation and human development.”
A champion of diversity in STEM, Prof Jantjies is passionate about using technology to enable children - and especially girls - from disadvantaged backgrounds to get access to online resources, learn programming skills and gain exposure to high tech such as robotics.
“Supporting young talent in STEM fields is so important in building the future of any community. We need to understand what makes women and diverse groups not complete school or higher education in STEM, and we need to be deliberate in protecting this pipeline,” she says. “Skills support programmes in maths and science geared towards underprivileged communities are important. And career awareness at grassroot and community levels are vital - as is mentorship, and shining the light on the work of women making an impact across STEM. We cannot be what we cannot see.”
Chemistry researcher Dr Natasha Ross decided to follow a career in Chemical Science because she wanted to do something out of the ordinary - to make a difference in the world somehow - and she’s doing her best to ensure that other young women have access to information about all types of science-related careers and possibilities.
“Women drop off at every stage throughout the STEM journey, whether in elementary school, high school, university, or in the workplace - and those who remain can be isolated,” she says. “But girls drop out because of a confidence gap, not an ability gap - and much of that confidence gap is a result of gender biases and stereotypes about whether women should, or can, pursue STEM careers.”
As a researcher and public speaker (a passionate advocate of alternative energy), she has tried to encourage young women and girls to consider STEM careers in order to break gender norms.
“The ripple effect of encouraging women into STEM reaches far and wide; science and engineering and tech are fundamental to our future. We need women to take their rightful place in creating that innovative future. And for that, we need to redefine “what a scientist looks like”. We need to realise that STEM fields are broad and varied, and that we need more women in STEM roles to make scientific innovations useful, and more importantly, safe. We need to give them role models.”
As the first African woman on one of the first African-led experiments at the most powerful laboratory in the world, at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN), nuclear physicist Senamile Masango is definitely one of those role models. Since then, she’s received her Master’s in nuclear physics from UWC (cum laude, naturally), addressed President Cyril Ramaphosa on the challenges faced by young scientists, and become one of South Africa’s successful young female black scientists.
“Growth in the areas of science, engineering and technology could speed up job creation and social upliftment, and address a desperate need of scarce skills,” she notes. “Increasing the number of women in science and engineering within any company is a competitive advantage. An increase in the number of female scientists and engineers will result in an increase in critical skills, better access to basic services, and the creation of new and varied products.”
Masango is the founder and chairperson of Women in Science and Engineering in Africa (Wise Africa), an NGO that provides leadership and role models for young people wishing to enter the fields of science and technology.
“Girls in Africa should be encouraged to take science subjects - not only those girls who might pursue a scientific or technological career, but also those who would then be enabled to apply scientific concepts in their daily lives,” she says. “When you educate a woman, you educate the next generation.”
UWC is hard at work developing that next generation. Our women in STEM are using cutting-edge methods to investigate our universe, examining everything from the DNA in our cells to the nuclear reactions at the hearts of stars - and much more. Their work can change the way we view the world - and the way we interact with it as well.