/ 12 February 2024

Closing the gender gap in science

Female Scientist Looking Under Microscope And Using Laptop In A Laboratory
As we celebrate the achievements of women in science, let us also recognise the work that lies ahead in realising true gender equality in Stem fields.

As we celebrate the International Day of Women and Girls in Science on 11 February, it’s imperative to reflect on the progress made, and the challenges that persist, in ensuring gender equality in the Stem — science, technology, engineering and maths — fields. 

This day serves as a global celebration of the invaluable contribution women make to Stem disciplines, while highlighting the disparities that hinder their full participation. 

I urge us all to redouble our efforts to encourage and support more women to pursue careers in science.

Despite the strides made in education, the gender gap remains glaringly evident, with millions of girls still facing barriers to accessing quality education, particularly in conflict-affected regions. 

The suspension of educational opportunities for women, as witnessed across the world, underscores the urgent need to address systemic barriers hindering girls’ education globally. Furthermore, women and girls are disproportionately excluded from opportunities to build essential skills, perpetuating the cycle of inequality.

In the realm of science and innovation, gender disparities persist, limiting women’s roles and contribution. As technology continues to advance, it is crucial that women are not left behind.

The emergence of artificial intelligence presents both opportunities and challenges, yet women remain underrepresented in this field. The consequences of this imbalance are stark, as AI technologies often reflect biases that can exacerbate inequalities, particularly for women of colour. 

However, amid these challenges, there are beacons of hope that inspire us to strive for greater gender parity in Stem. This year, Stellenbosch University is excited to have Melissa Muller, South Africa’s top-performing matric learner in 2023, as a shining example of the potential that lies within young women interested in science. 

Her decision to study mechatronics engineering at the university exemplifies the importance of nurturing and supporting women’s ambitions in Stem fields. We congratulate the many other women and girls who continue to excel and to enter Stem fields in which they are traditionally under-represented.  

At Stellenbosch University, we have seen the number of women doctoral graduates steadily increase between 2018 and 2021 to 48%. This compares well with the 46% recorded for the South African higher education sector. 

Moreover, the recent launch of the groundbreaking Paarl Africa Underground Laboratory (Paul) project underscores Africa’s potential in scientific research. As we embark on this pioneering endeavour to study dark matter and neutrinos, let us ensure that women are actively involved and well represented.

On this International Day of Women and Girls in Science, let us reaffirm our commitment to dismantling barriers and creating inclusive environments where women can thrive in Stem. 

We must invest in educational opportunities, provide mentorship and support networks, and actively promote gender diversity in scientific research and innovation. By harnessing the full potential of women in science, we can drive meaningful progress towards a more equitable and prosperous future for all. 

We acknowledge the women scientists at Stellenbosch University who continue to make a great impact in their field and who mentor future generations. Two examples are Professor Michele Miller, who heads the Animal TB Research Group and holds the DSI-NRF South African Research chair in Animal TB, and Professor Quinette Louw, the executive head of the Department of Health and Rehabilitation Studies and South African Research Chair in innovative rehabilitation. 

As we celebrate the achievements of women in science, let us also recognise the work that lies ahead in realising true gender equality in Stem fields. Together, let us pave the way for a future where every girl and woman has the opportunity to pursue her passion and contribute her talents to shaping the world through science and innovation.

Professor Sibusiso Moyo is deputy vice chancellor for research, innovation and postgraduate studies at Stellenbosch University.