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‘Science is for boys’: The challenges of being a woman in science

22nd September 2011

By: In On Africa IOA

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The underrepresentation of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines is an issue of concern all over the world - few women participate in these disciplines. Institutional structures and practices keep women out of STEM fields,(2) as do cultural, social and environmental practices. This CAI paper discusses the underrepresentation of women in STEM fields, with specific reference to the South African case.

Women in science in Africa

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According to the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), women’s active inclusion and participation in science is important in improving a country’s ability to tackle poverty issues.(3) Unfortunately, the number of women in science fields in South Africa and the rest of the world are significantly low. Records from South African tertiary institutions indicate that while women’s participation in science is minimal, the greater gender imbalance was in engineering, where one in four students was a woman in August 2010.(4) The same trend exists in other countries, for example, Guinea has the lowest percentage of women in science (5.8%).(5) Two African countries have reached some form of gender parity in science, namely Lesotho (55.7%) and Cape Verde (52.3%).(6) Elsewhere in Africa however, women occupy less than 30% of positions in science.(7) In South Africa, only 1 in 3 published scientists is a woman.(8) A 2009 study (9) found that 40% of South African researchers in STEM fields were women. Although the number of women scientists in South Africa is not dismally low, the South African Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor, feels that the number of women in science must increase.(10)

Gender: A social construct

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As an organising principle in any social or organisational space,(11) gender is a social construct that stipulates normative behaviour in all contexts.(12) According to prominent sociologist, Raewyn Connell, gender relations become problematic when they are undemocratic and are “marked by power imbalances, exclusion, exploitation, oppression or inequality.”(13) Despite the proliferation of more liberal gender attitudes in South Africa, men are often seen as the superior sex, while women are relegated to subordinate roles.(14) Concepts like strength and ability are therefore usually associated with males (15) and these beliefs remain entrenched in many academic settings, including STEM fields.

The low numbers of women in science and subsequent challenges they face upon entry into scientific fields can be attributed to gender socialisation. In early childhood, girls are discouraged from playing with machines, which are seen as suitable for boys only.(16) As boys are exposed to tools and nuts and bolts, they are introduced to technical and scientific terms and elements at an early age.(17) Girls, too, learn to act in a gender appropriate manner and become hesitant to deviate from these images.(18) Deficits in ‘technical socialisation’ could lead girls to avoid science professions, even when they have an affinity for mathematics and science subjects at high school level.(19) Girls are often steered away from science and are taught to regard it as unfeminine. More traditional women’s careers, such as nursing and teaching, are usually portrayed as attractive and appropriate for girls.(20) In many communities, children are still taught that science is for boys.

Poverty and girl children

Poverty in South Africa is directly correlated with girl children’s access to education.(21) Where women struggle to access resources, households with more female members are at greater risk of poverty.(22) In a family with both a girl and a boy child, the education of the boy child is often prioritised, especially when resources are few. Patriarchal gender relations result in girl children being expected to assist with household chores and child care, to allow for both parents to participate in the working environment. The boy child is encouraged to gain an education, with the expectation that he will take care of the family in the future.(23) However, education of girl children is often seen as a waste of scarce resources. In ‘traditional’ African culture, the girl child will be married off and will not be obligated to provide for her family thereafter. Investing in a girl’s education is therefore regarded as benefiting her future husband’s family, not her own family.

Challenges women face in science

Stereotypical ideas about women’s abilities and potential become entrenched in attitudes adopted by parents, teachers, and peer groups.(24,25) Unfortunately, socio-cultural stereotypes continue to provide justification for women’s exclusion or absence from science.(26)

In South Africa, the science field operates in a culture of masculinity, which can be difficult for women to adjust to,(27) as they often feel unwelcome and intimidated.(28) Whilst the cornerstones of science - rationality, objectivity and empiricism are stereotypically associated with men, emotion and subjectivity are associated with women and dismissed as unscientific. Women scientists are seen as an exception to the rule. Furthermore, Breakwell et al. argue that, in addition to discouraging women’s participation in science, the social construction of science as masculine threatens the gender identity of females in the field.(29) Similarly, group dynamics research found that girls who like science are seen as deviating from female group norms.(30) The decision to follow a science career may therefore imply social exclusion.

Upon successful entry into scientific fields, women are faced with the challenge of being paid less than men and advancing to higher positions at a much slower pace, despite having equal capabilities.(31) Evaluation practices often underrate women and overrate men.(32) Women essentially have to function within an environment where their competence is overtly questioned at all times.(33) Other institutional barriers identified include unconscious bias towards women, frequent interruptions and not being ‘taken seriously’ in the workplace.(34) The cumulative effect of these challenges further discourages women to participate in scientific careers.(35)

Concluding remarks

While women’s presence in fields like physics and engineering is noticeably low, it must be noted that they have achieved significant presence in the life sciences.(36) South African women scientists are experts in areas such as biophotonics, facial perception and biomimicry.(37) However, STEM fields overall need more women and South Africa and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) have in place initiatives to address the problem of the gender imbalance in science.(38) The more women continue to enter science, the more other women will realise that stereotypes can be overcome, and that women have a unique contribution to make to science fields.

In order to understand the underrepresentation of women in STEM disciplines in Africa, one needs to look beyond the institutional structures that hinder the advancement of women. The socio-cultural aspects that underpin this issue must be acknowledged and challenged, not only by governments, but by women themselves who must continue challenging hindering stereotypes.


NOTES:

(1) Contact Yeukai Mlambo through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Gender Issues Unit (gender.issues@consultancyafrica.com).
(2) Rosa, P. & Dawson, A., 2006. Gender and the commercialization of university science: Academic founders of spinout companies. Entrepreneurship & Regional Development, pp. 341-366.
(3) Jeanne Andres, ‘Overcoming gender barriers in science: Facts and figures’, Science and Development Network, 22 June 2011, http://www.scidev.net.
(4) Nthambeleni Garaba, ‘Call for more women in science and engineering in Africa’, Architectafrica, 16 August 2010, http://architectafrica.com.
(5) Jeanne Andres, ‘Overcoming gender barriers in science: Facts and figures’, Science and Development Network, 22 June 2011, http://www.scidev.net.
(6) Ibid.
(7) Ellis, S., 2008. The current state of international science statistics for Africa. The African Statistical Journal, 6, pp. 177-189, http://www.afdb.org.
(8) Department of Science and Technology of South Africa, ‘Address by Minister of Science and Technology of South Africa, Naledi Pandor, MP, at the opening ceremony, 27 June 2010, at the Beijing International Convention Centre (BICC)’, http://owsdw.ictp.it.
(9) Diale, M. et al., 2009. Women in physics in South Africa: The story to 2008. Women in Physics. The 3rd IUPAP International Conference on Women in Physics. American Institute of Physics.
(10) Naledi Pandor, ‘South Africa must attract more women to science’, Science and Development Network, 22 June 2011, http://www.scidev.net.
(11) Stromquist, N.P., 2007. Education for all by 2015: Will we make it? The gender socialization process in school: A cross-national comparison. Background prepared for the Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2008. UNESCO.
(12) Paechter, C. & Clark, S., 2007. Learning gender in primary school playgrounds: Findings from the tomboy identity study. Pedagogy, Culture & Society, 15(3), pp. 317-331.
(13) Connell, R., 2008. Masculinity construction and sports in boys’ education: A framework for thinking about the issue. Sport, Education & Society, 13(2), p. 142.
(14) Forje, J.W., 2008. Book review: Women in science, engineering and technology: Three decades of UK initiatives. Africa Insight, 38(2), pp. 139-141.
(15) Stromquist, N.P., 2007. Education for all by 2015: Will we make it? The gender socialization process in school: A cross-national comparison. Background prepared for the Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2008. UNESCO.
(16) Sagebiel, F., 2007. Gendered organisational engineering cultures in Europe. In: I. Welpe, B. Reschka and J. Larkin, eds. Gender and engineering: Strategies and possibilities, pp. 149-174.
(17) Ibid.
(18) Ibid.
(19) Ibid.
(20) Rosa, P. & Dawson, A., 2006. Gender and the commercialization of university science: Academic founders of spinout companies, Entrepreneurship & Regional Development, pp. 341-366.
(21) Marlier, E. & Atkinson, A.B., 2010. Indicators of poverty and social exclusion in a global context. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management,29(2), pp. 285–304.
(22) Ibid.
(23) Jeanne Andres, ‘Overcoming gender barriers in science: Facts and figures’, Science and Development Network, 22 June 2011, http://www.scidev.net
(24) Rosa, P. & Dawson, A., 2006. Gender and the commercialization of university science: Academic founders of spinout companies. Entrepreneurship & Regional Development, pp. 341-366.
(25) Stromquist, N.P., 2007. Education for all by 2015: Will we make it? The gender socialization process in school: A cross-national comparison. Background prepared for the Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2008. UNESCO. LINK?
(26) Ibid.
(27) Davis, K., 2001. Peripheral and subversive: Women making connections and challenging the boundaries of the science community. Science Education, 85, pp. 368-409.
(28) Rosa, P. & Dawson, A., 2006. Gender and the commercialization of university science: Academic founders of spinout companies. Entrepreneurship & Regional Development, pp. 341-366.
(29) Breakwell, G.M. et al., 2003. Stereotypes and crossed-category evaluations: The case of gender and science education. British Journal of Psychology, 94, pp. 437-455.
(30) Ibid.
(31) Ceci, S.J. & Williams, W.M. eds., 2007. Why aren’t more women in science? Top researchers debate the evidence. Washington, DC: APA Books.
(32) Ibid.
(33) Ibid.
(34) Rosa, P. & Dawson, A., 2006. Gender and the commercialization of university science: Academic founders of spinout companies. Entrepreneurship & Regional Development, pp. 341-366.
(35) Ibid.
(36) Carol Campbell,‘Role of women in science up for debate at SA's Bio2Biz conference’, Science in Africa: Africa’s first on-line science magazine, September 2009,. http://www.scienceinafrica.co.za.
(37) Grocotts Mail, ‘South African Women in Science Inspire at Scifest Africa!’, 4 May 2011, http://www.grocotts.co.za.
(38) Department of Science and Technology of South Africa, ‘Address by Minister of Science and Technology of South Africa, Naledi Pandor, MP, at the opening ceremony, 27 June 2010, at the Beijing International Convention Centre (BICC), http://owsdw.ictp.it.

Written by Yeukai Mlambo (1)

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