The questions South Africans should be asking: How do we encourage more women to stick with science?

Posted on September 16, 2019

It's often noted that we need more women in science to meet South Africa's demand for skills and to improve women's economic prospects. How do we encourage this? To answer this, I have reflected on some of the things that have encouraged or discouraged me along the way to obtaining my doctorate in physics.

Boys vs girls

Male and female children are treated differently from early childhood, from the toys they are given to the activities they are encouraged to do and the way we expect them to behave. Girls are less encouraged to take risks, more expected to take on household chores, and encouraged to care about their appearance rather than their ideas and opinions. Many grow up with the idea that "x is meant for men; I'm a woman, I can't do this". This is often true especially with STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects such as maths and science.  I have also observed parents (and others) say things that diminish girls' self-esteem – “only men are supposed to do that", "no one will marry you if you behave like this" – and so on.

To address this, we need broad social change. We need to pay attention to what messages we are giving our girls while they are young – through family, friends, school and the media – and we need to get parents, teachers, and communities on board.

Parents need to be involved

I was lucky enough to have an uncle who made maths look appealing, and who helped me tackle the subject. Whether boys or girls, children need their parents – or other family members – to get involved in their education, to help with homework, projects, reading and writing. As the old saying goes, "it takes a village". Parents can also ask teachers for advice when they themselves struggle to understand a subject, or look to YouTube, both for resources to share with their children, or help in understanding a concept.

The earlier this process begins, the better. As toddlers, children can learn many mathematical and scientific concepts through their daily activities. Encouraging children to ask questions (why is this happening? How is it happening? If I change this parameter, what will happen?) helps children learn how to analyse a situation, understand why certain things happen and how to go about solving a problem.

This encourages children to be more confident to ask questions, resulting in young people who grow up to be better critical thinkers and remain enthusiastic about learning – the first steps on the road to STEM.

More women participating mean that more women succeed

Everyone, male and female, has to overcome self-doubt to succeed, but I believe women can sometimes face additional challenges in doing so. There are still men who refuse to take a woman's answer to a question seriously, unless it is put forward by another man; or who make undermining remarks like "ah, maybe it's that time of the month". This can be very demotivating. And when you are one of few women in a class, it can be overwhelming.

In 2018, Science Daily published a study from Ohio State University which found that the smaller the number of women to enter a STEM doctoral class, the less likely they were to finish their studies on time. In contrast, the more women there were in the class, the smaller the gender gap between men and women graduating on time became.

With more women in a class, they are less likely to feel isolated and out-of-place, as if they don’t belong. More women within a class or programme also allows for a support system to develop.

We need role models who look like us

I had an exceptionally good physics tutor when I was in first year. She tutored a class of about 250 students at one go, and for me, seeing her do this was inspiring. Since then, there have been a number of black women in important roles that have continued to inspire me, both at UP and beyond.

To encourage students to take up STEM subjects we need more hands-on experiments in schools

One of the things that piqued my interest in science was doing experiments in school.  I had an excellent physics teacher in grade 10 who taught us how to do experiments using household ingredients, and encouraged us to discover further experiments at home.

Science camps, bringing these hands-on activities to children in under-resourced schools, could ignite more interest in these subjects – and if the scientists who visit are women, more girls may be encouraged in this direction.  It's also an opportunity for students (and even parents and teachers) to ask for more help in understanding concepts.

All the places you'll go

We need to inform children of all the possibilities that come from studying maths and physics. Until I arrived at university, I thought studying physics meant that I could be a high school physics teacher, and not much else, when actually, a degree in physics can take you anywhere!

A matter of attitude

I was taught to "try and fail, but never fail to try, regardless of the circumstances", and that when you start something, you must see it through. Having this approach instilled in me has helped to bring me through difficult times.

Dr Thabsile Thabethe is a postdoctorate research fellow in Physics at the University of Pretoria, and has published several books to help parents introduce concepts from mathematics and physics to toddlers.

- Author Dr Thabsile Thabethe

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