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More support needed for women in STEM industries

Women working in science. Thandekile Nthethwa is a chemist, specialising in nano technology. Picture: Jason Boud

Women working in science. Thandekile Nthethwa is a chemist, specialising in nano technology. Picture: Jason Boud

Published Jun 22, 2022

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More institutions or organisations should develop support structures for students, especially women, involved in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) programmes.

This was the call made by a number of females from the STEM industries during a webinar held by the Government Communication and Information System in collaboration with the Department of Science and Innovation.

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The webinar, held on Wednesday, aimed to celebrate the contribution of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) industries.

The event was hosted as part of the Youth Month campaign, aimed to inspire, engage, and encourage young women to consider a career in STEM-related fields.

According to the Unesco report titled “Cracking the code: Girls’ and women’s education in STEM”, only 35% of STEM students in higher education globally are women.

Despite the tremendous progress towards increasing women's participation in science-related fields, a significant gender gap has persisted throughout the years at all levels of STEM disciplines all over the world.

In South Africa, only 13% of graduates in STEM fields are women.

The webinar created a platform to discuss gender disparities between men and women in STEM fields and celebrated milestones achieved by women in male-dominated industries.

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Scientist and PhD candidate in Virology at the Nelson R Mandela School of Medicine, Zakithi Mkhize, said female biology is one of the many barriers in front of women eyeing the higher level positions.

“For example, if you fall pregnant during your PhD studies, there is no other option but to fall behind your male counterparts while they continue their studies and you have your baby. There is no maternity leave as such.

“It is still very much a boys club. There are a lot of women who enrol in their PhD or their Masters but don’t always reach that higher management positions. You walk in for an interview, and it is mostly men on the panel,” Mkhize said.

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She encouraged women in STEM to make themselves seen and known and to continue to empower each other.

Anne Chisa, who is a specialist in crop science and the creator of a podcast titled “The Root of Science”, said that most black females did not have role models in science growing up “because there weren't many that looked like us”.

“That is why I started my podcast, to change the faces of science,” she said.

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Chisa said she also wanted to create a platform to showcase science in a manner that can be consumed by everyone and not just scientists.

“In the academic space, we are pushed to publish papers, but it is complicated, and mostly only those in science will understand it.

“During the pandemic, we saw the need of having science being understood by everybody, and that is what I wanted my podcast to do. To open up young people’s minds and thinking and broaden their horizon. It is very hard to aspire to be something you don't understand,” Chisa said.

Architect and activist Inam Kula called for more institutions and organisations to set up support structures for students in STEM programmes.

She also encouraged fellow women already in the STEM industries to use their skill sets to contribute to supporting young people interested in STEM.

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