OPINION: Mind the (gender) gap in STEM fields

Today, 11 February, is  International Day of Women and Girls in Science. (Getty Images)
Today, 11 February, is International Day of Women and Girls in Science. (Getty Images)

Promoting the participation of women and girls in science means changing mindsets, fighting gender biases and stereotypes which limit the expectations and professional goals girls have (from early childhood), writes Tashnica Sylvester

Gender equality and our society's views on girls and women have weighed heavily on the minds of South Africans these past few months.

The value our culture places on females and our attitudes towards women has been challenged.

This re-evaluation of our dedication and commitment to the empowerment of girls and women also extends to the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). 

According to a 2018 report of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), women in STEM represent less than 30% of researcher globally.

This shows that there’s a need for urgent attention and huge investments in women to pursue studies in and make contribution to STEM fields. 

Although worldwide figures of women students and graduates in higher education have grown steadily in the past decade, women are still a minority in STEM research occupations. 

The same UIS report points out that in 2015 women made up 45% of total researchers in South Africa, but positions of leadership, authority and power are still predominantly occupied by men.  

The lack of gender-friendly policy frameworks, including the provision of onsite childcare facilities or the establishment of career re-entry programmes (for women who have taken a break to start a family), contribute greatly to women scientists abandoning the science profession, ultimately widening the gender gap. 

Compounding this is the fact that potential employers are willing to offer male applicants a higher salary for a science lab manager position than an equally qualified female applicant as Corinne Moss-Racusin and her co-authors showed in a 2012 article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 

This comes despite a recent report by McKinsey (2018), "Delivering Through Diversity", which highlights the link between diversity (defined here as "a greater proportion of women and a more mixed ethnic and cultural composition in the leadership of large companies") and the successful performance of a company through leadership effectiveness, productivity, and value creation. 

When in 2015 the American Association of University Women evaluated why women in America left the engineering field the differences were found not between the women themselves but in the workplace environments.

Women who left their careers had less opportunities for training and development, less support from co-workers or supervisors, and less support for balancing work and non-work roles than women who stayed in the profession.  

Similarly, cultural stereotypes and individual factors also influence the decision of women to pursue careers in science. 

In South Africa the lack of career support, such as female mentors, networks and professional development opportunities, along with cultural and societal expectations, may discourage younger females from a future in the sciences.

This is further exasperated by failure to implement gender-sensitive promotion policies, address discriminatory workplace cultures and microaggression and rethink assumptions about the roles of women in STEM, and the society at large. 

A culture of equality with equal value and pay for all employees enables everyone to advance to higher positions, to be more likely to achieve, grow, and innovate.  

Globally, there is a realisation that gender bias not only results in inequality between the genders but also affects knowledge production.

Promoting the participation of women and girls in science means changing mindsets, fighting gender biases and stereotypes which limit the expectations and professional goals girls have (from early childhood).

This highlights the importance of participation in science engagement or outreach. Highly visible scientists are increasingly recognised as influential leaders in STEM with a special role in making science part of mainstream society.  

In a recent study in the South African Journal of Science (2017) Marina Joubert and Lars Guenther looked at the most visible scientists in South Africa and found that while only 8% of South Africans are white, 78% of the most visible scientists currently are white, and 63% of these are men.

These statistics further support the misconception that science in South Africa is the reserved domain of white males.  

It's clear we need to raise the profile of women in STEM in South Africa in order to inspire and empower young women and girls to take up these (STEM) roles.

This translates into building platforms that celebrate accomplished and emerging women in science and engaging in open and collaborative dialogues, regionally and internationally. 

Through supporting organisations such as The Association of South African Women in Science and Engineering, Black Women in Science, The Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World and taking part in annual events such as the National Research Foundation’s Science Week, we highlight, not only to the youth, but to the international community, the great work being done by female South African female researchers. 

As we celebrate the International Day of Women and Girls in Science on 11 February, we must also recognise the critical role of women and girls in science and technology, and embrace the opportunity to promote full and equal access to and participation in science for women and girls.

Their contributions to STEM, diversifying racial, cultural and gender participation, translates to improved innovation, development and cultural progression.

Science-related fields play a central role in developing the agenda towards sustainable development and in turn economic growth. The current under-representation of women in STEM in positions of leadership however translates into loss of ideas and insights hindering our industrial, economic and development potential. 

We should work continuously to inspire young girls to not only pursue science careers, but to become leaders and innovators in their own communities. 

Equally, we should endeavour to teach young boys about equality of the genders. 

The secret to innovation, according to Accenture (2017), is a workplace culture of equality. Women bring skills to the workplace which not only boost productivity, but increase innovation and impact.

If organisations, whether public, private or academic, want to not only survive but thrive they have to do more to ‘get to equal’.  

 - Dr Tashnica Sylvester is a post-doctoral fellow in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Stellenbosch University and also a member of the Association of South African Women in Science and Engineering. 




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