/ 10 August 2023

Unlocking the exciting and diverse world of STEM careers for women

Women Stem
It is essential that women and girls are empowered to seize the growing possibilities in the field of science, technology, engineering and maths

The world of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) offers a universe of possibilities, waiting to be explored and conquered by talented and ambitious minds. However, for far too long, women have been underrepresented in these fields due to historical reasons and persistent gender disparities. 

According to Stats SA, LinkedIn data on members’ job profiles show that women remain significantly underrepresented in the STEM workforce. Women make up almost half (49.3%) of total employment across non-STEM occupations, but just 29.2% of all STEM workers.

Breaking down barriers and creating pathways for women wanting to pursue a STEM-based career, will enable industries and organisations to tap into a broader talent pool, foster innovation, and build a more equitable society. 

In celebration of Women’s Day (9 August), I would like to highlight the many opportunities that await women in STEM, the importance of female leadership, and the ways we can foster an inclusive and innovative future.

Dispelling myths 

The stereotypical beliefs that these fields are boring, limited to lab work, or only suited for males, or those women excelling in maths or science must be dispelled. 

In reality, STEM offers women an array of exciting and fulfilling career paths where they can have a significant impact on society. 

Representational diversity is crucial for industries to innovate and thrive in today’s interconnected and rapidly evolving world. Having a diverse workforce that includes women from diverse backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives brings numerous benefits to organisations.

STEM in higher education, for example, opens doors to dynamic roles that merge teaching, research, and technological advancements. Embracing careers as lecturers, professors, researchers, IT specialists, or instructional designers empowers women to actively contribute to the progress and growth of these fields.

STEM Specialisations

Currently, women continue to play second fiddle in the STEM workforce. but this can change with the diverse array of specialisations that STEM offers. 

In fields such as software engineering, data science, environmental science, cybersecurity analysis, artificial intelligence, biomedical engineering, aerospace engineering, robotics, chemical engineering, civil engineering, and nanotechnology there are opportunities to tackle real-world challenges and to make a significant difference.

The burgeoning field of artificial intelligence (AI) holds immense influence across various industries. However, women’s underrepresentation in AI hampers the realisation of the innovation premium associated with diversity. 

Inadequate incorporation of women’s perspectives, experiences and insights in AI development can perpetuate biassed algorithms and technologies, leading to suboptimal solutions.

People typically avoid even considering pursuing a STEM career pathway if they performed average or below in Maths or Science at school level. While there are very high requirements for entry into higher education to study Engineering, 

Medicine or Science degrees, success in a STEM field, is not confined to innate talent in these subjects. Valuable skills like problem-solving, creativity, critical thinking, communication, and teamwork are equally essential and highly valued in many STEM professions. 

Recognising and celebrating these diverse skill sets can amplify women’s contributions to the field.

Female Leadership

Having a qualification in STEM doesn’t mean you have to be in a lab or do fieldwork; there are also other opportunities such as occupying leadership positions in the public and private sectors. The recent World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report of 2023 highlights the gradual progress in increasing the representation of women in leadership roles. 

There has been a gradual but steady increase in the share of women in leadership roles over the past two decades, this share has edged up to, on average, 33.7% in 2023 from 33.4% in 2022 across public and private-sector leadership roles. 

However, the worrisome trend remains evident as hiring rates for women in leadership positions across various industries continue to decline. Women are consistently underrepresented, a disparity that is particularly pronounced in STEM fields. 

While comprising 29.4% of entry-level workers and 29.9% of senior workers, the proportion of women in managerial or directorial roles drops significantly to just one quarter (25.5% and 26.7% respectively). 

The lack of women’s representation becomes even more striking in high-level leadership positions such as vice-president and C-suite, where the figures plummet to 17.8% and 12.4%, respectively.

Reflecting on my journey in STEM, and my mathematical sciences background, I can definitely say it has proven to be a powerful catalyst for my progression into diverse leadership positions and ability to support researchers working in different disciplines.  

I hold the position of Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research, Innovation, and Postgraduate Studies at Stellenbosch University and supported by an excellent team of female leaders within the Divisions for Research Development (DRD), the Library and Information Systems (LIS), the Central Analytical Facilities (CAF), the Research Centers of Excellence and Chairs and the 10 Faculties.  

Through these entities we are promoting inter- and trans-disciplinarity collaboration in order to leverage resources and solutions to help deal with the local, regional, and global challenges.  

We have an excellent pool of female researchers and students/alumni doing ground-breaking research and innovation, for instance, Este Marie Burger, CEO at Biocode Technologies; Tara Southey, Primary Researcher and Project Leader of TerraClimProf Wessel Khan whose work focuses on “implementing cost-effective water treatment systems”; Prof Nokwanda Makunga who is doing research on  Medicinal Plant Biology and brings us back home to our diversity and flora, to name a few.  

There are several women researchers working on gender related work and how this intersects with other fields. Our new “Public Squares” initiative led by Dr Therina Theron from our Division for Research Development will help identify new collaborative inter and transdisciplinary teams that will become flagship programmes for SU and its ecosystem partners. 

Promoting gender balance in STEM leadership is not only important but also imperative for fostering innovation and driving progress in our ever-changing world.

Pathways to Success

In the ever-changing job market, the demand for skills is rapidly shifting. Creative thinking, analytical thinking, technological literacy, curiosity, lifelong learning, resilience, flexibility, and agility are now in high demand, as per the Forum’s Future of Jobs survey

To keep up with these evolving demands, governments and organisations are urging for focused policies and financial investments in adult education, training, and lifelong learning, aligning with the UN’s sustainable development goal four: “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.”

In this context, the rise of online learning has brought forth a plethora of new educational solutions, enabling individuals to adapt to the dynamic job market more effectively.

While higher education undoubtedly offers valuable resources, alternative routes like online courses, vocational training, paid internships, and industry certifications can provide foundational or practical skills. 

Emphasising the importance of practical skills, gaining experience, and showcasing abilities to potential employers can open doors to a thriving STEM journey.

Mentorship programs, networking opportunities, and initiatives promoting gender diversity are instrumental in nurturing the growth of women leaders in STEM. By supporting and encouraging aspiring female leaders, we create a more inclusive environment where innovation can flourish. I believe that SU is and will continue to be exemplary in this area. 

The world of STEM beckons with endless possibilities, and it is essential to ensure that women seize these opportunities with confidence and determination. 

As we move forward, it is crucial to break stereotypes, empower women, and encourage their active participation in STEM careers. By dispelling stereotypes, nurturing female leadership, and embracing the diverse skill sets that women bring to the table, we can bridge the gender gap in STEM and create a more inclusive and innovative future. 

Together, let us unlock the exciting and diverse world of STEM careers for women, shaping a world where talent knows no boundaries, and everyone can contribute to building a better tomorrow. 

Prof Sibusiso Moyo is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research, Innovation and Postgraduate Studies at Stellenbosch University. She holds a PhD in mathematics.