South Africa must attract more women to science

Girls' exclusion from most science subjects starts at primary school in South Africa Copyright: Flickr/World Bank Photo Collection

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A policy to encourage women graduates in South Africa has worked. Now we must support women scientists, says science minister Naledi Pandor.

South Africa’s policy of expanding access to higher education institutions has been successful in attracting first-generation black and female students. In just over a decade, it has led to a remarkable gender reversal: in 1995 there were more male than female graduates; by 2008 there were more female than male graduates.

Yet women tend to study social sciences, the humanities and the arts. To redress this balance, when I was education minister between 2004 and 2009 we earmarked university funding to encourage more women to take up the physical and natural sciences, particularly engineering.

Today, there are many more female doctors than female engineers. There are some 35,000 engineers in South Africa, of whom only 3,000 are women. Of the 32,000 registered doctors, 6,000 are women.

To achieve gender equality in science, and to help women realise their potential, we must first understand why women are under-represented in most scientific disciplines.

Obstacles to equality

Three obstacles to equality loom large in South Africa. First, there is the legacy of apartheid education (‘Bantu Education’), under which black people were not taught the math and science needed for post-school study.

This changed in the late 1990s, but even now, South African pupils score poorly in maths and science tests, according to the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment — an indication of the difficulty of overcoming the legacy of Bantu Education.

The second obstacle is that mathematics and most science subjects are regarded as inappropriate for girls. The exclusion of girls starts at primary school level, when schoolchildren are shown images that perpetuate gender stereotypes and convey the message that science and technology are not for girls.

Images used as teaching aids depict women doing domestic tasks or merely observing while men perform technology-related tasks, such as repairing cars, wiring, replacing light bulbs and so on.

When girls do become interested in science, teachers and academic advisors often actively discourage them from studying these subjects at school. Education researchers have found that advisors tell girls that mathematics and science are difficult subjects, and that arts and humanities, such as literature and history, may be better choices.

Finally, evidence from classroom studies of co-education schools points to discrimination by teachers. It suggests that teachers encourage boys to engage with science by allowing them to ask more questions, while ignoring girls, giving them inadequate replies or criticising them for minor errors.

This contrasts with evidence from girls-only schools where girls are encouraged and perform far better in the sciences.

Increasing access

Girls’ limited involvement with science subjects at school means there are few female entrants to science, technology and engineering disciplines at higher education levels.

It is vital that South Africa, along with other countries, does more to increase women’s access to scientific knowledge. Science and engineering are critical for innovation and economic growth, and for tackling the development challenges that face many of the most vulnerable communities in the world.

In the past ten years, leaders in higher education have begun to play a far more proactive role in encouraging women to take up careers in science.

Some practical interventions are already in place in South Africa: the provision of equipment grants and special conference funding; workshops in publication and writing skills; postgraduate grants and research fellowships for women; special concessions for study leave (including lecturing replacements); and active institutional communication about research opportunities for women.

Many of these funding instruments have quota for women scientists. But attracting and retaining students can be challenging when funding levels compare poorly with the salaries offered in the private sector.

Highlighting success

Highlighting the achievements of women scientists is another way of encouraging and inspiring young women to take up careers in the physical and natural sciences.

Each year, I am delighted to address meetings of South African Women in Engineering (SAWomEng), Women in IT, HERS-SA (a network dedicated to the advancement of women in higher education), the National Science and Technology Forum awards and the Women in Science Awards.

These awards highlight women scientists who have excelled in their fields. There are other private-sector initiatives that also encourage girls to embark on a career in science. The mobile phone company Cell C’s ‘Take a Girl Child to Work Day’ is a good example, an annual event where girls can learn about the companies that participate in the scheme.

Numerical parity will take many years to achieve. But in the words of Tebello Nyokong, a cancer researcher at Rhodes University, South Africa: "Every little thing you achieve is better than what you started off with; hence, every achievement calls for a celebration".

Naledi Pandor is South African Minister of Science and Technology.

This article is part of a Spotlight on Overcoming gender barriers in science.