Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills are becoming increasingly sought after as we take steps to achieve our global goal of becoming a more sustainably impactful society. These fields, however, continue to be dominated by men. Worldwide. While the number of women in STEM occupations is on the rise, we are still a long way away from seeing an equal representation in this sector. This signifies a loss of opportunities to gather different perspectives, insights and ideas needed to advance our understanding of what technology is capable of.

The imbalance in South Africa’s STEM fields

Although children of all genders are performing similarly in maths and science at school, men form the largest portion of students studying STEM majors in higher education, eventually going on to pursue careers in these fields. This has been partly linked to limited access to good science education for girls.

In South Africa, this problem is spread across race and socioeconomic factors too. Rural areas in particular struggle with a lack of educational resources, resulting in literacy levels that are generally low.

For young girls interested in STEM related subjects, these factors may hinder a solid, early engagement and foundation for later learning.

Why we need more women in STEM

Our country is riddled with wicked problems. STEM work forms part of coming up with integrated solutions to these and will also contribute to global goals of development and growth. By having so few women participate in these fields, there is a smaller pool of talent to draw from, limiting the flow of ideas needed for tackling complex issues.

Beyond the benefit of others, empowering women to make their own choices regarding their career paths can influence health, by boosting morale and dignity. Gender inequalities reach into many spheres of our society and it is important to address these wherever they are present.

What is holding women back?

There are a variety of reasons why we do not see more women working in STEM. These are often based on institutional structures and societal beliefs, rather than personal choice.

·         A major point keeping women from pursuing science and technology, especially in rural areas, is the presence of deeply entrenched cultural stereotypes against not only working women, but women taking on jobs perceived as “men’s jobs”. Expectations of women in the home mean that there is an overall lack of support for those wanting to engage with STEM.

·         Linked to stereotypes in the home, is discrimination in the work place. Many STEM companies are male-dominated where the contributions women offer are often ignored. These issues are rarely addressed appropriately due to a lack of policies protecting women against these micro-aggressions. Women may come to feel isolated by an absence of other female colleagues, mentors, and role models.

·         Some women are offered fewer training opportunities and input from co-workers and supervisors.

·         There is still an overall trend of women being paid lower salaries than men for the same work.

·         Many women already working in STEM abandon their professions after starting a family, because of poor gender-friendly frameworks when it comes to considering things like on-site childcare facilities and programmes to help women re-enter their career after taking a break.

How can we empower more women to pursue careers in STEM?

Starting early is key. Working to unravel stereotypes in the classroom and exposing girls to science, technology and maths from an early age will teach them that they too can make their dreams a reality. Celebrating a wide-reaching knowledge pool, of which women form a big part, will bust myths that women have no place in STEM. Gendered language within STEM, especially in job advertisements and company communications needs to be re-designed and restructured to open these fields to all.

Lastly, creating platforms for women to share their experiences and encourage each other is a powerful way of reducing feelings of isolation and despondency for women who are studying STEM related subjects or for those who are already working in the field.Our hope, here at The Good Work Foundation, is that with the right tools, we can empower women to enter STEM fields confidently. Through digital and e-learning programmes, we hope to close the gender gap in STEM and ensure that every child who walks through our doors has an equal opportunity at pursuing their dreams.