Bridging gender gap in STEM fields

Gender summit interview
Copyright: B. Pollitzer, Portia Ltd UK

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  • A conference has identified the need to bridge gender gap in STEM fields
  • Doing so could benefit African economies through innovation
  • An expert says stories on women in STEM could boost interest among girls

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[CAPE TOWN] Researchers and organisations in the development of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in Africa have recognised the need to bridge the  gender gap in these disciplines.
The experts who attended the Gender Summit 5 Africa in South Africa last month (28-30 April) said that improved support for women in academic institutions and entrepreneurship could benefit African economies.
“STEM and the economies are threaded together. It leads to job creation, with secondary ripple effects seen in areas such as housing and community development,” said Dorothy Nyambi, head of global networks and programmes of the South Africa-based African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS).

“A more diverse workforce, which includes women, improves the pipeline of innovation and is essential for long-term economic growth.”

Pontsho Maruping, Technology Innovation Agency, South Africa

However, Nyambi noted that there are few women engaging in or participating in STEM, adding that more women are needed in such fields to bridge the gap.
She explained that in the African context, there are expectations for girls that presents a challenge to getting students involved in STEM at a critical age, and pursuing education at master’s or doctoral levels.
“The academic timeline falls in with the expectations for girls that they’re supposed to be getting married and having a family,” she said.
Coupled with a lack of female role models who are STEM leaders and age limits on academic scholarships and funding, she observes: “There is very little incentive for girls to follow STEM careers.”
Scientific output in Africa is growing. This scenario creates an optimistic perspective for STEM in Africa, which can be bolstered by encouraging female entrepreneurship, according to some of the experts who participated in the conference.
“A more diverse workforce, which includes women, improves the pipeline of innovation and is essential for long-term economic growth,” said Pontsho Maruping, an executive at South Africa’s Technology Innovation Agency (TIA). The TIA leverages public and private funding to bring scientific innovations to the market.
Furthermore, she said that in South Africa gender stereotypes exist less between males and females in business development.
“Research shows that differences between genders don’t exist in taking strategic business decisions. And the perception that society won’t accept a female starting a business is untrue,” she said.

But even successful female entrepreneurs still need support.
Attention must be paid to nurturing innovators as they move into production and distribution, according to Daphne Titus, United States Agency for International Development senior advisor for the Addis Ababa Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework for the Great Lakes Region.
Titus also said that sharing their stories was a key driver to inspiring future female leaders. “One of the most important things we can do is [to] work with governments and other bodies to publicise what female STEM entrepreneurs are doing so that other women can see what is possible,” she added.
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa desk.