Women’s Month 2021: Recognising female changemakers redefining gender equality in STEM

Every Women’s Month we recognize and honour the countless women who fought the oppressive and racialized systems that tried to reduce women’s power and agency. This year, Women’s Month has taken place under the theme of “Generation Equality: Realizing Women’s Rights for an Equal Future.” Generation Equality is a UN Women movement, aiming to fight the systemic barriers hindering women from equal participation in various sectors. Although some progress has been made, the process faces many cultural and legal challenges and still struggles to find a country that can claim total gender equality. As a result, women continue to be undervalued, underpaid and underrepresented (GovSA, 2021; UN Women, 2021).

This narrative is no different when looking at the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in South Africa. According to Statistics SA, women in South Africa account for 23% of STEM professionals. Of this, 17% are in leadership positions. These percentages are even lower when looking at women of colour (IT Web, 2020). According to UNESCO, less than 30% of researchers employed in research and development are female (SEI Africa, 2021). Moreover, women continue to earn less than their male counterparts – approximately 28% less and do not progress as far as men in their careers. This sets a precedent for a shortage of female role models in STEM, thus deterring young women from pursuing careers in these fields (IT Web, 2020; PwC, 2019; SEI Africa, 2021).

The Equality Equation Report highlights gender norms, stereotypes, biases and sexual harassment as some of the key drivers of the under-representation of women in STEM fields and attributes gender biases in societal culture and the media as contributing to the circulation of this vicious cycle (Marie-Nelly, 2021). As a result, actual contributions in research, development and innovation made in STEM fields lack the female perspective needed in addressing a wide range of gender-based issues (Makunga, 2021; SEI Africa, 2021).

This inequality arises at a grass-roots level (across southern Africa), where girls’ drop-out rate from secondary education is higher than for boys. Those who do complete their secondary education, lack the competency in numeracy, sciences and digital skills to follow the tertiary education in STEM-related subjects. National Senior Certificate results reveal that results for Mathematics are consistently higher for boys than girls (Marie-Nelly, 2021).

Although this picture is bleak, recognizing the pioneering women and organisations who are creating impact are crucial to furthering gender equality in STEM. #InspiringFiftySA, SEI (Stockholm Environment Institute) Africa, The Dare to Dream Foundation, SA WISE (Association of South African Women in Science & Engineering) are some examples of organisations focused on promoting recognition of women’s achievements in STEM, providing networks of psychosocial and financial support, promoting sustainable gender integration, informing gender-inclusive policy-formation and lobbying for greater leadership positions for females (IT Web, 2020; Marie-Nelly, 2021; SEI Africa, 2021; UCT, 2021).

To name just some of the female trailblazers in STEM in South Africa, we include women breaking barriers in “non-traditional” careers such as aviation, engineering, computer science and medicine. Dr. Lindiwe Sidali is South Africa’s first female cardiothoracic surgeon. Baratang Miya is a self-taught coder and founder of GirlHype, an organisation that provides training in programming and app development for young women (Marie-Nelly, 2021). Senamile Masango is making history in nuclear physics and became the first African woman to work on a project at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research in Switzerland. She also founded the Senamile Masango Foundation, aimed at improving STEM-based proficiencies across the African continent. Tebogo Lebelo’s research in prostate cancer is contributing to critical elements of diagnostics and treatment (Smit, 2021).

Despite systemic challenges, women are at the forefront of Covid-19 research, emergency response and vaccine development. Dr. Quarraisha Abdool Karim is a globally acclaimed scientist in HIV/AIDS research, contributing to Covid-19 responses on a global scale. Dr. Thakgalo Thibela, is the youngest working surgeon in South Africa (at 21 years old!) and has been leading efforts at the Helen Joseph Hospital in Johannesburg and aims to specialise in neurosurgery in the future (Smit, 2021). Profs Glenda Gray and Linda-Gail Bekker, are leaders at the SAMRC and Desmond Tutu HIV Centre respectively. They are leading seminal clinic vaccine trials and have cited this initiative as transformative in terms of women-led studies with over 60% Black investigators and over 60% women leading research sites and ensuring representation across rural communities, historically-disadvantaged institutions and collaboration between public and private sectors (South African Medical Research Council, 2021).

Despite the vast challenges that women face in STEM-related fields and careers, it is important to recognise the women defying limiting gendered expectations, socioeconomic barriers and tackling industries that historically have been male-dominated. This Women’s Month, we recognise the resilience and continued efforts of the female pioneers within STEM – and the invaluable contributions to transform the industry for future generations.

Contributions by Koketso Molosiwa