Start them young: Supporting women for successful and sustainable careers in the STEM
Share this article:
OPINION: While numerous challenges are experienced by women in the uptake, retention and progression of their STEM careers, it is important to equip young females with skills and information early during their careers to change the status quo, writes Dr Vicky Nembaware.
Women scientists are grossly under-represented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) yet they have great potential to positively impact on equitable global progress and sustainability.
The inclusion of women in the STEM field, among other advantages, can a) lead to more gender-sensitive and inclusive research and outcomes b) lead to inclusion of unique and broader perspectives from such gender diversity c) an increase in the number of STEM professionals.
Ongoing concerted efforts have identified gender-specific barriers that either hinder the uptake of careers in the STEM fields by women, barriers that impede advancement of careers in this field.
While it is key to have ongoing efforts to crystallise the disparities and identify such barriers, it is equally important to come up with quick easily implementable and sustainable solutions to some of the identified barriers In the piece, I highlight some of these barriers and advocate for strengthened activities and programmes that target young women and girls to help them plan their STEM careers.
The STEM higher education diploma and degree programme graduates more males in comparison to females. It is key to ensure young girls are attracted to the STEM field while still in school for just “hooking”, the importance of representation cannot be understated.
There is need for young female learners to be exposed to women who have made careers in the STEM fields. The power of representation cannot be overstated. Online projects like the mGenAfrica project can play a critical role in helping increase the engagement of female STEM professionals and young high school girls which would not have been possible due to geographical barriers.
Building a family and career can pose major challenges in retention of women in the STEM field.
Most research fellowships may have conditions that only permit women who have not taken time off, sometimes years off, to build families. While national-wide policy changes can be made, such decisions could be made at project or funder levels. With the assistance of advocacy from established gender groups, this trend can be changed.
Various other factors contribute to attrition of women from STEM careers. Ironically one such factor has been dubbed the “Queen Bee Syndrome”.
The queen bee if often used to refer to women who have achieved success in the workplace and may avoid attachment to other women in the workplace; may be more critical of females under their management in comparison to males, and more importantly such queen bees may sabotage or refuse to help other women rise up the ranks as a means of self-preservation of their status.
Like any other behaviour, queen bee attitudes may be difficult to change in adult females and could be highlighted to young females before they are in positions of power.
There is a dearth of women in senior positions in STEM, given the country’s history, it is not surprising that black women are even more adversely impacted.
Black women in STEM experience double-edged challenges from both their colour and gender. Although many black women are now represented in almost all imaginable STEM jobs and industries, the number of those working in senior levels positions remains very low. It is key that young women starting off in STEM or interested in the STEM field are encouraged to join different forums and organisations where gender-specific support is offered these include organisations such as South African Women in Science and Engineering (SA WISE).
While numerous challenges are experienced by women in the uptake, retention and progression of their STEM careers, it is important to equip young females with skills and information early during their careers to change the status quo.
While we wait for policies to be implemented, everyone, including parents, schools and centres of younger education can play a role in changing the gender disparities that exist in the STEM field by encouraging and supporting awareness around uptake, retention and progression of STEM careers in young women by “starting them young”.
* Nembaware is the project coordinator for Sickle Africa Data Coordinating. She also coordinates various curriculum development initiatives including mGenAfrica, a platform which promotes engagement between high school pupils and researchers in the health sciences field. She has a PhD in bioinformatics and an MPhil in monitoring and programme monitoring and evaluation.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL and Independent Media.