According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), South Africa is ranked number one in Sub-Saharan Africa as having the highest portion of female STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) graduates. The narrative has changed, gone are the days where STEM equals men. In the 21st Century and with the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) there are enough seats at the table for everyone.

The issue of whether opportunities exist for women in STEM in South Africa is an easy yes. Nevertheless, there are still a number of obstacles women in STEM in South Africa need to navigate through – both in the classroom and the world of work. Being a woman with close to 10 years’ experience working in a predominately male dominated steel manufacturing industry, I can vouch that woman do indeed face many obstacles.

A recent report by the African Academy of Sciences (AAS) found that the leading elements which attract and influence women to pursue STEM related careers is that they believe these careers fit their capabilities. This confirms that women who pursue STEM careers believe in their capabilities to manage STEM related courses and careers. This is further corroborated by the slow yet steady increase in women pursuing careers in STEM.

There are numerous factors which cause and contribute to these obstacles. The patriarchal perception of STEM related careers, sexual harassment, lack of female representation and role models, limited mentors in the workplace, gender discrimination and inequality in the labour market, hogging of information, lack of expertise transfer, having to go the extra mile to prove one’s self as a woman in STEM etc.

It is generally universally accepted that there is only so much a textbook can teach a person. Dr Bernard Fanaroff, Special Advisor to the Minister of Trade Industry and Competition, argued the same point at the Steel Master Plan (SMP) Conference that took place on the 19 and 20 of May 2022. Dr Fanaroff stressed the difference between skills and expertise, arguing that expertise can only be gained through not only doing the work but also through mentoring and coaching. This is a key problem South Africa needs to focus on across all industries, more so where STEM and woman in STEM careers is concerned, as STEM is critical for South Africa’s economic prosperity.

Credit however needs to be given to strategies and legislation that have been enacted and are aimed at eradicating inequality, such as the Decent Work Agenda where inequality is one of the themes, the National Development Plan in its advocacy for the inclusion of women at all representative levels and the Employment Equity Act which is geared towards promoting equality in the workplace to name a few. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) South Africa is also another promoter of gender equality. In addition, there is also the Commission for Gender Equality and the publication of the Code of Good Practice on the Prevention and Elimination of Harassment in the Workplace which came into effect from March 2022.

Nevertheless, and notwithstanding these worthy initiatives, the question remains – why is there still gross underrepresentation of women in STEM in South Africa?

In the President of the Republic of South Africa’s own admission in one of the State of the Nations Addresses, South Africa still remains a highly unequal society where poverty and prosperity are still defined by elements such as gender. This notwithstanding, South Africa has been successful in putting some measures in place, however, in the absence of implementation, monitoring, individuals championing of same and the right support – we are a long way-off from believing the struggle for woman and woman in STEMS has been won.

I believe more role models of women in STEM are needed to assist, not only for inspiration purposes, but for mentoring, coaching, expertise transfer as well as support.

Support needs to start in the class room and carried over into the world of work. The barrier of accessibility of information regarding STEM careers needs to be addressed and more specifically for girls in rural areas. We also need to see more initiatives to assist the girl-child in both rural and urban areas and a far greater involvement with girls early in their school careers. Access to bursaries and opportunities to be mentored also needs to be significantly expanded.

There should be more emphasis on encouraging and supporting initiatives such as Take a Girl Child to Work and Women in Mining which has greatly assisted in increasing women in the mining sector.

South Africa is in need of a targeted and strategic skill strategy for the success of our economy. This requires a holistic approach, that is for all, irrespective of gender, to work together as equal contributors.

Zizile Lushaba
Human Capital and Skills Development Executive
Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of Southern Africa