The Future is Female

The centenary celebration of both Stellenbosch University and the Madiba legacy are cause for pause and reflection on the social and economic progress of South Africa. However, conducting reflective, critical and constructive conversations around reform is impossible without first having a conversation about the country’s history. Discussing our history is always a challenge because of South Africa’s racist and oppressive history.

Forced removals, ‘separate development’, racialized poverty and inequality, and police brutality are always central in discussions. The colonial anti-development policies of the 1900s and prior to that are contributing factors to South Africa’s current skills shortage crisis, and stagnant economic growth and development. According to a recent World Bank Report, over half (55%) of the country’s population is poverty stricken (measured by the national upper bound poverty line of R992 per person per month in 2015 prices, see World Bank, Overcoming Poverty and Inequality in South Africa, 2018, p. xii.  Available here:  FINAL-WEB.pdf). As the report continues to show, much of this poverty and inequality follows racial lines. Universities have their role to play in uncovering and reversing these trends.

Although segregation laws were abolished eons ago and higher learning institutions strive to create world class, inclusive and diverse learning areas the representation of black (generic for African Black, Coloured and Indian) students in previously white institutions is still lacking. Stellenbosch University is one of the oldest universities in South Africa, and is thus a powerful incubator of thought leaders and change agents. Even though segregation laws still prevailed in the 1970s, Stellenbosch University opened its doors to postgraduate black students as early as 1978. However, 12 years after opening its doors to black students, only 5.4% of the total student population at the university was black. As recently as 2013, Stellenbosch University’s black student population only made up 28.3% of the total student population. The representation of black students within the institution is not a reflection of the national racial demographics (as the black population within the same period was larger than 85% of total population).

Although disappointing, these stats are not surprising given that Stellenbosch has inextricable ties with the Apartheid Ideology. Between 1919 and 1978 each. South African prime minister had been an alumnus of the university either as student, professor or chancellor. More disconcerting is the fact that the issue of representation is not only prevalent in SU but also in some of South Africa’s major Universities. According to the Mail and Guardian, the University of Pretoria, North West University, the University of Cape Town, University of kwaZulu-Natal, and the University of Johannesburg all had more than 50% of white staff in 2009.

These statistics were some of the leading causes of the 2015 Fees Must Fall protests. Students across South Africa and Africa in general called for institutions to make higher education more accessible to black students by making it more affordable. Together with making education affordable was the call to decolonialise education in South Africa and Africa as whole.

The decolonisation of education in Africa calls for the inclusion of black academic material and scholarship in the higher education sector. This means that learning institutions should prescribe learning material from local and regional sources for study, analysis, discussion and assessment purposes-alongside international academic sources instead of prescribing colonial material exclusively. Prescribing learning material from various regions makes learning material more relatable to black students and their social backgrounds.

Decolonising education also means removing the names and statues of historical figures (like Cecil John Rhodes) that were known and active oppressors of black people within learning and economic spaces. This is with hopes that both students and academia will be able to understand and create an emphasis on the fact that western knowledge is not superior to African knowledge. This will aid both the private sector and the government to design laws and infrastructure that are better equipped to serve the South African society. A decolonised education system takes into consideration the dynamics of our society, our history and our cultural practices and thus seeks to radically change the conditions of black people.

On top of the racial imbalance that exits in both education and the workplace, there is the less discussed issue of gender bias and discrimination as well as the barriers to entry, advancement and limited economic participation that women face. In most parts of the world, women have been, and continue to be denied formal education, particularly higher education. According to a study conducted by The World Bank to understand women’s economic prospects (Women, Business and the Law 2016: Getting to Equal) women are still economically marginalised. Of the 173 countries that were included in the study, 155 of the countries have at least one law that limits women’s economic prospects. 100 of the 173 countries limit the professions that women can be involved in, and 32 allow women’s husbands to dictate whether they can work at all. Women’s access and mobility in the science and technology related fields are even more constrained.

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) related fields face the most barriers to entry for women and have some of the lowest retention rates of women. In the international STEM community only 23% of the talent is female. The Engineering Council of South Africa’s (ECSA) faces similar gender imbalances with a membership made up of only 11% females and only 4% the professional engineers being women. The membership of the South African Institute of Civil Engineers reflects similar numbers with only 17% of its 16 000 membership being women, and of the almost 6 000 professional engineers, a staggering 5% are women. The gender and race imbalance is even more pronounced when looking at that participation of black women in STEM industries. Enrollment and graduation figures published in the ECS Throughput Study indicate that black women in the engineering field are still marginalised. Of the 15 000 enrollments in engineering in 2007 only 6.8% were black African females. Of the 2154 that went on to graduate in 2007 only 151 were black African women.

South African black women are the least represented in STEM. Rowena Martineau addresses some of the reasons for this in a 1997 paper entitled: Women and Education in South Africa, Factors Influencing Women’s Educational Progress and their Entry into Traditionally Male-Dominated Fields. Martineau states that international trends suggest that women are becoming more educated; however, their position in the labour force does not change substantially. She discusses how the race biases, gender biases as well as social condition affect representation and diversity in STEM related industries. The gender composition of ECSA serves as evidence to the bias against women in STEM. SAICE’s retention rate of women also provides more insight on some of Martineau’s arguments.

How do these statistics affect women in the future? If the gender composition in STEM does not improve, women will be marginalised from power structures and they will be economically immobilized. This is because economic trends are expected to see an increase in the participation of STEM in implementing economic policy as well as in economic processes. Because STEM fields are male-dominated, a STEM driven economy would be a patriarchal economy in which women would not be catered for.

South Africa’s economy is under much strain because of the skills shortages in STEM. The shortage in STEM skills is evidence to the fact that there’s disconnect between the available skills that are required for the successful, efficient, and effective implementation of development projects and the demand for these skills. The expansion of education for all groups is a logical step in addressing the skills shortage crisis. Encouraging the participation of women (black women in particular) together with policies that advocate for the education and empowerment of women within STEM fields is a means of increasing the skill pool, encouraging innovation, improving diversity as well accelerate economic redress. The fact that females constitute only 11% of the engineering community implies that women (representing just over 50% of population) are not considered in the design process of the systems and products that are meant to serve them. Increasing the participation of women in STEM improve the suitability of innovative solutions.

The argument that women are emotional and thus cannot deal with the demands of male-dominated fields is often used to support the poor representation of women within STEM. The idea that women are nurturers and care- givers is often used to belittle the work and intellect to women trying to enter the field. The possibility of falling pregnant and taking time off work after giving birth is often a disadvantage against women when promotion opportunities arise.

Evidence to support this is the fact that less than 10% of directors and managerial positions in the top 300 companies are female. This is because of the stereotype of what a woman is and how she behaves. Manglin Pillay’s (CEO of SAICE) statement that “about the time graduates progress into middle management, is about the same time that majority of women wish to have families” implies that women cannot raise families and be ambitious; solidifies the idea that women won’t survive the demands of the fields because of their genetic description.

Pillay’s statement highlights the kind of person that he assumes can be successful in the modern world. Pillay essentially argues that women do not get high profile jobs because they lack the “appetite for work load and extreme performance that those positions require”, that “women choose to have the flexibility to dedicate themselves to more important enterprise like family and children”. His reasoning and his position of influence as CEO SAICE are all reasons to why women, and black women in particular do not advance in engineering. Pillay’s words are patronizing by implying that family enterprise is a more noble pursuit than career advancement.

Given this, the question then becomes: What can the South African government and the private sector do to improve the participation of women in industries that are traditionally white- and male dominated? The celebration of marginalised groups in these fields is essential in encouraging diversity in STEM. Studies have proven that representations coupled with mentorship are essential in breaking stereotypes. The creation and maintenance of networking platforms for women in STEM can be used as a means of encouraging women in the field. Networking enables pioneers to share industry knowledge and it encourages peer-to-peer learning. Representation and networking also help dismantle the perception of STEM fields being better suited for men.

To dispel the imbalances in STEM, South Africa needs allocate more funding towards initiatives like WomHub and SA WISE, which aim to increase the participation of women and girls in STEM. These initiatives marry the development of women and gender parity through education and development. Ventures that encourage female participation in STEM create opportunities and tools that enable women to break glass ceilings through innovative collaboration between companies, industry experts, higher education institutions, and the South African youth.

For the above-mentioned initiatives to be successful industry leaders need to take radical action against men like Manglin Pillay who are intent on perpetuating the idea that woman are genetically and psychologically predisposed to not succeed in STEM and in corporate. Diversity in STEM cannot be achieved if women are the only ones working to change the gender narrative and patterns in STEM, men also need to be educated on the benefits of diversity in the field. More importantly, men need to check their personal gender biases as they are the ones that maintain the status quo in STEM. The reality is that the men that are perpetrators of sexism and blatant bigotry in STEM related structures as are the reason that women are unable to advance.

In conclusion, the economic growth and development of South Africa lies in creating innovative value adding systems through STEM. This can be addressed by addressing the historical barriers to entry marginalised groups experienced and continue to experience. Promoting diversity in the decision making improves equality, allows the creation of creative and efficient solutions.

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