Posted on February 13, 2017
A lot has been said over the past several years about the lack of access girls and women have to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). According to one statistic, only 28 percent of researchers worldwide are female and it is often stated that women have less access to funding, networks and senior positions. Perhaps it is time to place the facts in context.
It takes many years to develop into an established researcher. The typical career path of any engineering researcher starts with a four-year bachelor degree, followed by a two-year master's degree and a PhD that takes at least three more years to complete. After graduating, a researcher needs to spend some time working as post-doctoral researcher under an experienced supervisor before truly starting out on his or her own research career. Researchers are rated by the National Research Foundation (NRF) and in order to be rated by peers as an established researcher, one typically needs a proven track record of independent post-doctoral research output over a period of five to ten years. This means that a researcher will only become visible 15 to 20 years after leaving school. With a lack of role models and support, it takes even longer. Many women take a career break to have children and look after them while they are small, which further delays this process.
During the last couple of decades there has been a steady and significant increase in the number of female engineering graduates. Gone are the days when there were years in which no female engineers graduated. The low number of established female researchers in STEM is a result of the low number of female graduates in STEM more than 20 years ago.
Perhaps we just need to be patient. Current graduates do have role models and support and in the near future we will reap the rewards of recent investments motivating females to enter careers in STEM. It is exciting to see a growing number of females actively participating in STEM-related research and the positive energy and creativity these girls and women bring to their research teams will significantly contribute towards our ability to meet the science, technology, engineering and mathematics needs of our society.
Prof Elsabe Kearsley is a Professor in the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of Pretoria.
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