Yesterday, the 11th of February, was the first-ever International Day of Women and Girls in Science. The day was created by the United Nations in December to celebrate the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

Why is it so important to celebrate women in these fields? Although women have made great scientific discoveries historically and the number of women in STEM fields has risen dramatically, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation, women only account for 28% of the world’s researchers with lower percentages of women holding higher-level positions.

According to UNESCO statistics, in Africa, the country with the lowest percentage of female scientists is Guinea, at 5.8%. Only in Lesotho and Cape Verde are over 50%of researchers female. In South Africa, approximately 40% of scientists are female. While this number is much better than 5.8%, it still proves that there is room for improvement for South Africa’s scientific gender equality. The study didn’t show what percentage of top-level researchers were female, but that number is likely below 50% as well.

South Africa is already showing some progress in making girls interested in STEM fields. National Science Week is held every year during the first week of August, programs such as the Tsogo Sun Moves for Life Chess Programme teach youngsters about math and science, and math and science high schools ensure that girls can specialise in engineering or technology if they wish.

Why does it matter so much for women to have equal representation in STEM fields? These fields are at the forefront of innovation and are likely to continue to be among the highest-paying career paths in the future. Women deserve to be equally represented in the fields creating our future, and it’s important that women’s voices be heard when scientists and researchers are developing products. In poorer countries, where women are barely represented in the workforce and in science, STEM work can empower women and help them improve their lives.

We can help encourage women and girls to pursue careers in science by providing them with opportunities in school to conduct experiments, encouraging their interests, and providing scholarships and incentives to persuade them to pursue advanced degrees in STEM fields. The Cape Town Science Centre often holds educational evenings, the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement often holds events and provides education throughout South Africa – there are many opportunities for those interested in science, if you know where to look.

After all, with Marie Curie, we wouldn’t know about radioactivity, without Rachel Carson we wouldn’t know about the harmful effects of pesticides, and without Rosalind Franklin we wouldn’t know about DNA. If more women were encouraged to pursue science in the past, who knows how many other innovations we would already have?

Leave a Reply