The key to resolving South Africa’s critical skills shortages and ensuring the country is geared up for a digital future lies in increasing the number of women educated and employed in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) fields.
Eight of the top 10 scarce-skills occupations are Stem-related and the demand for technical skills and innovation capacity will only increase with the rise of a digital economy driven by rapid advances in Fourth Industrial Revolution technology. Women are under-represented in these fields, where pay is generally better than in non-Stem jobs.
Encouraging young women into Stem education would also enhance women’s economic empowerment by moving them from vulnerable positions in low-skilled and informal jobs to the stability of the formal economy, according to Nthabiseng Moleko, a lecturer in economics and statistics at the University of Stellenbosch’s Business School.
“Reversing the growing gender wage gap in South Africa requires addressing stereotypes of Stem-related careers as ‘men’s work’, and better equipping underutilised TVET [technical vocational education and training] colleges to deliver technical, engineering and artisan skills,” she said.
The 50 colleges are specifically geared to deliver the technical, artisan and engineering skills to support these sectors, as well as contributing to the development of entrepreneurs, Moleko said, “but they remain underutilised in driving broader national economic priorities”.
Moleko, who is a contributor to the 2018 South African Board for People Practices Women’s Report released earlier this month, said the country should follow the example of the newly industrialised countries of Asia, which had demonstrated the “pivotal role” of technical and vocational education in transforming economies and growing productive sectors driven by manufacturing, engineering and technology.
“If South Africa is to recover from its underdevelopment, lacklustre economic growth and severely high unemployment, chronic poverty and widening inequality, the educational sector must produce economic participants in the Stem-related industries that are building productive sectors.
“This requires a deliberate effort by national government to improve education outcomes such that we simultaneously improve long-term economic growth and reduce unemployment,” she said.
Stem education is strategically important for its contribution of skills to the primary and secondary sectors of the economy — agriculture, mining, manufacturing, utilities and construction — which contribute 30% of gross output and account for about 30% of employment.
Stem sectors are also less susceptible to economic downturns than the informal sector and low-skilled jobs, where women mainly find employment, Moleko said, and average wages in these productive sectors are higher.
But she said that women are unequally represented in the value-adding primary and secondary sectors, making up only 35% of managerial and professionally qualified employees.
Moleko, who is also a commissioner of the Commission for Gender Equality, argues that, besides the overall national need to improve participation in Stem-related education and training, the participation of women should be a specific focus of the government as they remain the most severely affected by the triple threat of poverty, inequality and unemployment.
This, she said, is consistently indicated in Statistics South Africa surveys on unemployment and poverty — women’s unemployment and income inequality has remained higher than national averages over the past two decades; fewer women than men are employed; and more women than men receive social grants.
Although South Africa ranks 19th out of 144 countries in the 2017 Global Gender Index compiled by the World Economic Forum, this drops to 89th place on the sub-index for “economic participation and opportunity”, with a widening gender wage gap recorded.
“It is apparent that the status of women in the South African economy is far worse than that of men, even though they are 51% of the population. We must critically assess what is needed to increase women’s economic participation and contribution to the national output, rather than being dependent on social grants,” Moleko said.
She added that many scholars have provided evidence that women’s economic emancipation, reflected in a greater share of household incomes, has a more significant positive impact on households and communities, particularly in the health and education of children, than men’s income.
Systemic historical inequalities and discrimination in access to education and training, which has disadvantaged a large majority of South Africans in the past, are exacerbated for women by social norms and perceptions of Stem fields as “men’s work”, she said.
“The debate should then focus on understanding the reasons for the barriers to entry women experience in these sectors, in order to unlock the potential of women, particularly women of colour, to the benefit of Stem-driven sectors,” she said.
Moleko, who has worked extensively in economic development and was selected by the African Institute of Financial Markets and Risk Management as a leading future African researcher in finance and economics, recommends a number of practical steps for South Africa to consider in stimulating the participation of women in Stem education and employment.
These include targeted efforts at school level to encourage girls to continue with mathematics and science, together with teacher support for building content knowledge and capabilities, and career guidance programmes that promote and demystify Stem fields and TVET education.
Partnerships between the private sector and colleges should be encouraged, driving information and public awareness campaigns and strategies for the absorption of more women into Stem-related sectors, she said.
Moleko recommends that the department of higher education and training, responsible for the colleges, should investigate their capacity and whether they are optimally staffed and utilised, and monitor and hold them accountable for throughput of women students.
Artisan development programmes in colleges must be equipped with the necessary infrastructure, knowledgeable teaching staff, materials and support services, she said.
In addition to addressing barriers to entry to Stem education and training for women, Moleko said other obstacles to women’s participation in workplaces must be addressed to ensure the retention of female employees. Solutions should include removing discriminatory practices and policies, recognising women in Stem fields by providing access to further education and promotions, and practices such as flexitime and childcare facilities.