More must be done to attract girls to STEM fields


Participation of women in sciences and technology fields is low, despite the fact that globally women have made tremendous contributions to science from the early times. Today, 11 February, is International Day of Women and Girls in Science 2020. Anne Gabathuse, Senior Innovation Support Manager at Wits Enterprise discusses the role that women play in the field and what can be done to increase their participation.

We have seen an increase in the number of women entering science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields in recent years, specifically in life sciences, however, in high tech fields such as engineering and technology, men are still in the overwhelming majority. There are various factors at play, presenting barriers for women and girls in STEM; for instance, due to these fields being historically male dominated, women often experience lack of support and mentorship from male superiors and counterparts, while unequal treatment and the gender pay gap are also factors.

From a young age, Gabathuse wanted to become medical doctor and always excelled in maths and science while at school. She believes that girls are often steered towards softer degrees as opposed to high tech degrees. Generally, women and girls do not receive the same level of support as males from family, peers and organisations.

“There seems to be a lack of confidence in females, with assumptions that males are more scientifically and technically minded than women, making them better suited to STEM fields. This could not be further than the truth. Stereotypes such as these must fall, gone are the days of thinking that males are smarter than females and should be steered to study degrees outside of the STEM field,” comments Gabathuse.

At the turn of the 20th century, Edith Clarke became the first professionally employed female electrical engineer in the United States in 1922. She paved the way for women in STEM and engineering and was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2015.

In South Africa, there are numerous women making their mark in STEM fields.

“My personal favorite is Professor Sue Harrison from the Centre for Bioprocess Engineering Research (CeBER) and the Future Water Institute at the University of Cape Town. She was my co-supervisor for my Masters’ Thesis. She has achieved so much and pursues research that aims to address many challenges such as water treatment through natural means. She is recognised locally and internationally and is forever on the go but somehow has figured out how to balance work and family, while still being a leader in her field.

“Working at Wits, I have been exposed to quite a few awesome female researchers, with whom I have had the privilege of working. One whom I find particularly inspiring is Professor Mandeep Kaur who joined WITS in 2015 and has done some amazing work. I got to work with Mandeep when she applied for the WITS/TIA seed fund administered by Wits Enterprise. She wanted funding to do some pre-clinical studies in mice to determine the efficacy of a triple negative breast cancer therapeutic. She and her student have just completed the study with some very exciting results and we are all excited about the outcomes of the study. It is her fighting spirit and never-die mentality, combined with her drive towards excellence that inspires me to be diligent in my work too,” says Gabathuse.

According to Gabathuse, there are programmes aimed at educating the girl child and providing mentorship and guidance to open their eyes and hearts to the possibilities for them to play in STEM fields. One such programme of which she was part of during her time at university was the Women in Engineering Organisation (WomEng). The programme created a platform for women in engineering and technology to mentor and support each other in a field that tends to be hostile for females due to it being male dominated.

However, she says more needs to be done to grow girls’ confidence to enter STEM fields and there should be more programmes offering mentorship and support.

“Government needs to put in place programmes with targets which aim to support and motivate the girl child to enter the field. Women who are already in the field and thriving should also make it a habit to mentor younger girls and assist in opening their eyes to the opportunities in the STEM field. In the workplace, companies should ensure that females are treated equally to their male counterparts and are recognised for their contributions. There is still a vast gender pay gap, with males earning substantially higher salaries than their female counterparts.”

Better access to information on the different STEM disciplines would also help girls to make more informed decisions about the path of study to take. Gabathuse herself completed a BSc and then enrolled for an Honours degree, with the view to switch to medicine after her honours. However, she really enjoyed the life sciences stream and kept postponing her plan to study medicine. By the time she was done with her Honours, she had been exposed to another field, Bioprocess Engineering, which intrigued her and she eventually “threw the medicine plan out of the window”.

“The challenge I experienced was that there is generally not that much information out there on the different STEM streams, what the requirements for studying these are, and how these are interrelated such that it allows for people to switch from one discipline to another, depending on what one finds interesting the more they get exposed.

“Also not clear are the career paths that can be followed in the different fields. For example, one of the motivating factors for me to switch from life sciences to engineering was the fact that I did not see myself working in the lab after my studies and to me that seemed to be the set path if you studied life sciences. I did not know that one could for example be a Patent Attorney or work in a technology Transfer Office where I currently am. The more information that can be provided for the different STEM disciplines the more it would assist students to make informed decisions.”

She concludes with some advice for young women considering careers in STEM fields: “Don’t ever believe that working in sciences or technology is not for you because of your gender. Be open to the possibilities of a career in a STEM field.

“Before you decide what career path you want to follow, do some research and speak to other people, especially women, who are already working in your chosen field. This will help you to make an informed decision.”

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